One year on, what are the social repercussions of Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy?

In our article, The Angelina Jolie effect, posted back in January 2014, we discussed how the popular actress, faced with an 87% chance of developing breast cancer due to her genetic predisposition, made the courageous choice to undergo a preventative double mastectomy, which reduced her likelihood of developing the disease to under 5%. Jolie carries the ‘faulty’ cancer gene, BRCA1, and has a strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer.

A year ago this week, an emotive account entitled My Medical Choice and penned by the mother of six was published in the New York Times, stating, “Now I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.” Instantly women the world over sat up and took note, just as they did following similar news stories involving X Factor judge, Sharon Osbourne, singers Anastacia and Michelle Heaton, and reality TV star Jade Goody’s premature death from cervical cancer. The latter story led directly to a 12% rise in requested smear tests, and during in the first six months after Angelina Jolie’s announcement, tests for the rare gene mutation (which affects less than 1% of women) rose 67%, while double mastectomies increased fourfold.

Yesterday, the results of a new US study were published, revealing that nearly 75% of women who opted for a double mastectomy following a cancer diagnosis in one breast did not have a valid medical reason for doing so. The study, which followed 1,447 women receiving treatment for breast cancer and was published in the journal JAMA Surgery, reports that their risk of developing cancer in their healthy breast was minimal. This was either because they lacked a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, or because they were clear from the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene mutations – the medically approved criteria for the removal of healthy breast tissue.

British surgeons confirm that the demand for double mastectomies has also risen in this country, with Angelina Jolie’s public decision cited as a significant reason for the increased number of requests. Interestingly, the American report noted that the majority of women choosing to proceed with the drastic surgery were ‘well educated’ and had been given a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan prior to their decision.

Most recently, Dancing With The Stars host, Samantha Harris, decided to undergo a double mastectomy following a cancer diagnosis for a lump in her right breast. “I felt so much calmer,” she said of her decision, which again related to being around for her two children’s future. Baroness Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of Breast Cancer Campaign, lauded Harris’s openness about her experience, saying, “Being breast aware can be crucial to early diagnosis, increasing chances of survival.” Morgan praised the 40-year-old television personality for raising awareness that breast cancer can occur at any age.

To a certain degree, it is inevitable that celebrities speaking out about their personal medical decisions will undoubtedly affect the public consciousness dramatically. This will invariably have a long-term effect on medical funding, surgeons’ time and women undergoing gruelling surgeries that they may not necessarily need. However, if the personalities listed above hadn’t spoken out, how many cases would have gone unnoticed? It’s a fine line indeed.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/EdStock

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