Celebrities talking openly about having a double mastectomy seem to be influencing decisions made by other women.
Researchers at the University of Michigan say there’s been an almost five-fold increase in the number of people undergoing the procedure since 2000.
That timeframe coincides with significant media coverage of at least 17 celebrities in the United States alone who have talked about fighting breast cancer. Four of them opted for a double mastectomy.
“People underestimate the impact of celebrity news reports on medical knowledge. It’s naïve to think this is not a source from where we get our medical information,” says study author and breast cancer surgeon Dr Michael Sabel.
The highest profile case was that of Angelina Jolie who in 2013 revealed she’d had both breasts removed. In a very personal piece for the New York Times, Jolie went into great detail about the BRCA mutation that had put her at high risk of breast cancer.
“I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made. My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 percent to under 5 percent. I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer,” Jolie wrote.
That placed the issue firmly in the media spotlight and convinced many women to follow her lead.
“Much more often, patients are not coming in asking what their options are for treatment. They are coming in saying they want a bilateral mastectomy. Patients are increasingly using outside sources of information, such as the internet, and coming to their own conclusion,” says Dr Sabel.
He worries that leads many women to make decisions based on wrong information about the risks and benefits.
“When the next celebrity has a double mastectomy, we need to make sure we are putting the right messages out. This includes framing the story in terms of why the patient had a bilateral mastectomy and when that might be a good decision for a patient,” he says.