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‘Angelina effect’ drives women to test their genes

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Referrals to genetic testing clinics trebled in the days after actor Angelina Jolie went public with her decision to have a preventive double mastectomy, a scientific meeting has heard.

Ms Jolie drew international attention to the risk of genetic predisposition to breast cancer when she announced her decision, prompting a surge in the number of women seeking genetic tests, according to Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre senior genetic counsellor Mary-Anne Young.

Ms Young told the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia’s Annual Scientific Meeting on 13 November there had been a marked “Angelina effect” on the rate of genetic testing since the actor revealed her decision.

Ms Young said that in the six weeks prior to Ms Jolie’s announcement, genetic clinics in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia had received around 90 referrals a week.

But in the immediate aftermath of her disclosure, referrals spiked up to around 280 week, and since have settled at around 190 a week.

Ms Young told the Sydney Morning Herald that many of the women being referred for genetic counselling had a high risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer due to a strong family history, and Ms Jolie’s case had given them the prompt they needed to seek advice.

“We have seen people who knew they were from high-risk families but they just hadn’t been as proactive as they might have been,” she said.

“The majority of the referrals we’re getting, around 80 per cent, are related to a family history of breast and ovarian cancer,” Ms Young told the meeting.

Ms Jolie revealed in May that she had had a double mastectomy after genetic tests revealed she carried the BRCA 1 gene and had an 87 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and a 50 per cent chance of ovarian cancer.
Ms Young said women carrying BRCA 1 and 2 genes were at a significantly greater risk than the general population of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Options to reduce this risk included regular screening, preventive mastectomy or risk-reducing medication, she added.

The Society’s President, Associate Professor Sandro Porceddu, said about 5 per cent of the 15,000 breast and ovarian cancer cases diagnosed in Australia each year were attributable to an inherited gene, and he encouraged those with a family history of the diseases to speak to their GP.

“Being aware of a genetic risk means patients are more likely to either avoid cancer or detect it at an earlier stage, when treatment is more likely to be successful,” Associate Professor Porceddu said. “Ultimately, this greater awareness of genetic risk will save lives.”

Adrian Rollins

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