Media coverage of Angelina Jolie’s mastectomy boosts awareness of reconstructive breast surgery

In collaboration with the Press Association
Credit: Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The coverage of actress Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a double mastectomy led to improved knowledge of breast reconstruction surgery among women, say researchers in Austria.

"This focuses on women’s awareness of surgical options after being diagnosed with breast cancer, and may well help women make more informed choices about treatment” - Professor Arnie Purushotham, Cancer Research UK

The study highlights how, as well as issues around inherited risk, reports of celebrities’ health choices can help raise public awareness of medical conditions and procedures.
 
Jolie underwent surgery in 2013 to reduce her chances of being diagnosed with breast cancer. She carries a fault in the BRCA1 gene, which puts her at increased risk

By chance, the researchers - based at the Medical University of Graz - had conducted a survey of women's awareness of breast reconstruction surgery immediately before she went public about her operation.
 
This allowed them to conduct a second survey in the immediate aftermath of the subsequent coverage.
 
“As this fascinating study shows, when celebrities talk publicly about their experiences of cancer it can have a big impact on ordinary people’s attitudes, awareness and behaviour,” said Professor Arnie Purushotham, a breast cancer surgeon and Cancer Research UK’s senior clinical adviser.
 
“Usually this impact is positive and, after Angelina Jolie’s announcement in 2013, UK researchers found that many more women came forward for advice on genetic testing. 
 
"This new finding focuses on women’s awareness of surgical options after being diagnosed with breast cancer, and may well help women make more informed choices about treatment.”
 
The two surveys, both conducted online and involving 1000 women, were carried out by team led by Dr David Benjamin Lumenta.
 
The number of women aware that reconstructive breast surgery is possible after the surgical removal of one or both breasts rose around four per cent, from 88.9 per cent to 92.6 per cent. 
 
Awareness that breast reconstruction can be carried out using a woman's own tissue increased 11 per cent, from 57.6 per cent to 68.9 per cent. 
 
The knowledge reconstructive surgery can be carried out during the breast-removal operation itself climbed from 40.5 per cent to 59.5 per cent – a rise of 19 per cent. 
 
As well as awareness of surgery, the researchers found that one-fifth of the women who took part in the second poll indicated the coverage of Jolie’s decision made them ‘deal more intensively with the topic of breast cancer’.
 
Dr Lumenta said the findings could play a crucial part in ensuring women have the information they need to make a decision around preventative surgery.
 
“Since individual choice will become a driving force for patient-centred decision-making in the future, cancer specialists should be aware of public opinion when consulting patients with breast cancer,” he said.
 
Dr Christian von Wagner, from Cancer Research UK’s health behaviour research centre at UCL, commented: “This is a really interesting study, particularly as it was able to show so clearly how women’s awareness of different breast surgery techniques improved after Angelina Jolie’s announcement, potentially helping them have more informed conversations with their doctor. 
 
“Most of the studies looking at this area have focused on changes in people’s behaviour and knowledge in seeking help before diagnosis, while this looks at changes in people’s awareness of options available after possible treatment.”   
 
But Professor Purushotham said such events could also have downsides. “There’s also a small risk that it could raise expectations of certain forms of reconstructive surgery which may not necessarily be suitable for some women. 
 
"And more broadly, we need to make sure the NHS is able to cope with subsequent public demand in the aftermath of these events, which can often be extremely high for short periods, and also that healthcare professionals are adequately trained to help people who may be worried unnecessarily.”
 
The findings are published in the journal CANCER

References

  • Lebo, P., et al. (2015). The Angelina effect revisited: Exploring a media-related impact on public awareness Cancer DOI: 10.1002/cncr.29461