'Angelina Jolie effect' on breast cancer screening endures

The "Angelina Jolie effect" on referrals for genetic counseling for breast cancer risks was immediate and long-lasting, a new U.K. study suggests.

Jolie's glamorous image and relationship to Brad Pitt may have boosted impact, researchers say

Angelina Jolie signs autographs for fans at the premiere of Maleficent in Tokyo in June. Her preventative double mastectomy fuelled publicity about hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. (Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press)

The "Angelina Jolie effect" on referrals for genetic counselling for breast cancer risks was immediate and long-lasting, a new U.K. study suggests.

The Hollywood celebrity announced her decision to be tested for the cancer-linked BRCA1 gene and subsequent double mastectomy, to reduce her risk of breast and ovarian cancer because of her family history, in May 2013. The announcement fuelled publicity about breast screening.

In Thursday’s issue of the journal Breast Cancer Research, British investigators say referrals first increased by 2.5 times and remained around nearly double their previous levels through October.

"The Angelina Jolie effect has been long-lasting and global, and appears to have increased referrals to centres appropriately," Gareth Evans, a professor of clinical genetics at Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention in Manchester and his co-authors concluded.

There were concerns the increase in appointments for screening after Jolie’s announcement might have been from "worried well" patients coming back for another test. But Evans said, in fact, many were women who were already overdue for screening. 

Similarly, researchers in Toronto told a breast cancer conference earlier this month that the effect seemed to increase awareness and referrals for women who were truly at high risk for hereditary breast cancer.

The U.K. researchers pointed to other examples of female celebrities who spurred increased use of health resources, such as higher colonoscopy rates after Katie Couric’s colorectal cancer awareness campaign on The Today Show in 2000 and Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer diagnosis in Australia.

Jolie’s announcement likely had a bigger impact than other celebrity announcements "possibly due to her glamorous image and relationship to Brad Pitt. This may have lessened patients’ fears about a loss of sexual identity, post preventative surgery, and encouraged those who had not previously engaged with health services to consider genetic testing."

They concluded that education of the general public is important in increasing awareness of, and improving access to, familial cancer services.