A team of researchers has found that in June and July 2013, immediately after Jolie’s announcement, referrals for genetic testing increased 2.5-fold compared to 2012. There was a two-time increase, from 1981 to 4847, till October 2013. Later on, genetic testing referrals saw a drop. In the report, the team also states that there were more enquiries about risk-reducing mastectomies. The research team analyzed data from 12 breast cancer family history clinics and nine regional genetic testing centers in the UK from 2012-13.

Commenting on their findings, Evans says: “Angelina Jolie stating she has a BRCA1 mutation and going on to have a risk-reducing mastectomy is likely to have had a bigger impact than other celebrity announcements, possibly due to her image as a glamorous and strong woman. 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.

“The team notes that a similar pattern was seen in Australia after news broke about singer Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer diagnosis. This led to a 40% increase in breast cancer screening. And in 1987, Nancy Reagan’s decision not to undergo breast-conserving surgery led to a 25% increase in mastectomies in the US. “All these stories, including the current one, show that health news around high-profile individuals can have a sustained effect for at least 6 months in influencing the uptake of health care,” say the researchers.

Evans adds that this encourages more women to visit family history clinics so they can find out about any gene mutations early and take the appropriate action. Although this will mean some women may need to have a mastectomy, he says that others may be advised to take cancer-preventing drugs or adopt lifestyle changes in order to reduce cancer risk.

The researchers point out, however, that during the period of increased referrals, health care services found the extra demand challenging as there is no additional funding to cover such eventualities.

“The increased awareness of familial cancer in the community alongside improvements in genetic testing, screening and preventative strategies, provides funding challenges for clinical genetic services and commissioners,” they add.

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