In May 2013, Angelina Jolie revealed in a New York Times opinion piece that she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy because she had a family history of cancer and carried a rare mutation of the BRCA1 gene. Media coverage has been extensive, but it is not obvious what messages the public took from this personal health story.
We conducted a survey with a representative national online panel of 2,572 adults. Participants described their awareness and identified information sources for the Angelina Jolie news story. They also reported their understanding, reactions, perceptions, and subsequent activities related to the story. We asked questions pertaining to personal and societal breast cancer risk and hypothetical questions regarding preventive surgery if the respondent or a family member were in the same position as Ms Jolie. Demographic information was collected, as was family risk for breast and ovarian cancer, and a gauge of numeracy.
While three of four Americans were aware of Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy, fewer than 10% of respondents had the information necessary to accurately interpret Ms Jolie’s risk of developing cancer relative to a woman unaffected by the BRCA gene mutation. Awareness of the Angelina Jolie story was not associated with improved understanding.
While celebrities can bring heightened awareness to health issues, there is a need for these messages to be accompanied by more purposeful communication efforts to assist the public in understanding and using the complex diagnostic and treatment information that these stories convey.
Genet Med 16 7, 516–521.
breast cancer; celebrity health narratives; BRAC1/2; health communication
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