Breast cancer gene testing jumps after Angelina Jolie revelation

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The number of women in the US testing to see if they have genes associated with breast cancer rose sharply immediately after Angelina Jolie revealed that she had undergone a double mastectomy on fears that she was at high risk of developing cancer later in life.

Tests for the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, which raise the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, jumped by 66 per cent to 1.13 per 100,000 of the population in the two weeks after the actress disclosed details of her operation in a New York Times editorial in May 2013.

However, although the number of gene tests rose the mastectomy rate was unchanged, suggesting that health-related celebrity announcements may often not be very effective at targetting the group most at risk from the condition in question, said the researchers, from Harvard Medical School.

The research was based on data from more than nine million commercially insured women in the US aged between 18 and 64. It showed that the BRCA test rate increased from 0.71 tests per 100,000 women in the 15 business days before Ms Jolie’s article to 1.13 testes in the 15 business days after. However, the mastectomy rate was stable, averaging 7 a month per 100,000 women during January to April as well as May to December 2013.

“The research suggests that celebrity announcements can reach a broad audience but may not effectively target the population that would benefit most from the test – in this case women with a family history of breast, ovarian, fallopian tube, or peritoneal cancer,” concludes the report, published in the journal The BMJ.