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Right for the Test

Actress Angelina Jolie wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in 2013 explaining her decision to undergo a preventive double mastectomy after learning that she carried a BRCA1 gene mutation.

This revelation, Canadian researchers reported at American Society of Clinical Oncology Breast Cancer Symposium, not only spurred more women to seek genetic counseling, but mostly drove women at high risk of the disease to pursue testing.

"It's not just worried women who came in, or those who have moderate or low risk — it was really high risk women who perhaps were concerned before about pursuing genetic counseling or genetic testing, but who somehow seemed to have felt reassured or encouraged by this story and came forward for assessment," study author Andrea Eisen from the Familial Cancer Program at Sunnybrook tells the Canadian Press.

Eisen and her colleagues compared the number of referrals at their clinic for genetic testing in the six months before and after Jolie's op-ed appeared. After the story was published, the number of women referred for genetic counseling increased some 90 percent and those who qualified for testing increased 105 percent. Further, they found that the number of patients found to carry a BRCA mutation increased from 29 patients before Jolie's piece was printed to 61 patients afterward, an increase of 110 percent.

"Sometimes where there's a popular figure in the press, there's a lot of interest, which is great, but it's not always reaching the right women. In this case it actually was the right message," Eisen says.

A previous study of the effect of Jolie's disclosure found that it made people more aware of preventive mastectomies as a means of limiting breast cancer risk, but that people were still confused about the genetics of breast cancer risk.