What the world learnt from Angelina Jolie's breast surgery

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When celebrities' health problems make the news, media reports help shape public knowledge about those conditions and procedures, suggests a new study from Austria.

Following Oscar-winning film star Angelina Jolie's May 2013 announcement of her breast removal surgery to prevent cancer, women reported better knowledge of breast reconstruction options, researchers found.

While Jolie's announcement focused on her genetic risk for breast and ovarian cancer, the study's senior author said the results show the impact on public education extended to breast reconstruction.

Read: Risk factors for breast cancer

"The key finding was that Mrs. Jolie's announcement did indeed affect the public opinion going beyond gene-positivity and actually improving the awareness that breast reconstruction can be achieved with the use of one's own tissue and that it can be done during the breast-removal operation," said Dr. David Benjamin Lumenta, of Medical University of Graz.

In a 2013 essay in the New York Times, Jolie discussed her family history of breast cancer and the specific genetic variant that put her at an increased risk not just for breast cancer but for ovarian cancer, too. What's more, she talked about her mastectomy and her breast reconstruction. The piece sparked a deluge of media reports.

Jolie also announced in the Times earlier this year that she'd had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to prevent cancer.

Past research has tied Jolie's breast surgery announcement to a doubling in the number of British women being tested for the genetic variants - known as BRCA 1 and 2 that increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

Read: New blood test for early detection of cancer relapse

For the new study, the researchers used data collected from 1,000 women recruited online in March 2013 - coincidentally before Jolie's announcement. The original intent was to learn about the women's perception of their breasts and reconstruction.

The researchers polled another 1,000 women in June 2013, a month after Jolie's announcement.

Between the two polls, there was a small increase, from about 89 percent to about 93 percent, in the percentage of women who knew breast reconstruction is possible after breast removal, the authors reported in the journal Cancer.

There was a larger increase - from about 58 percent to about 69 percent - in the percentage of women who knew reconstruction could be done using a woman's own tissue.

For example, Lumenta said, it's possible to use a woman's abdomen tissue "like in the case of a tummy tuck" for breast reconstruction.

There was an even larger jump - from about 41 percent to about 60 percent - in the proportion of women who knew that breast removal and reconstruction could be done during the same surgery.

Read: Black women more likely to carry breast cancer gene

About 20 percent of women in the second study also said the coverage of Jolie's announcement made them deal with the topic of breast cancer on a more personal level.

"Health topics, notably cancer, have always been of interest to the general public, and the predominant sources of information range from traditional media (magazines, newspapers) to Internet-based health platforms," Lumenta said.

"The general public ... have obtained most of their information about health and disease even before consulting a specialist, in most cases without specific background knowledge," he added.

"The medical profession deals more than ever with this growing amount of information and it is in our hands to assist patients in making the right choice for their particular situation."

The average person should seek advice on breast cancer and related topics from specialist centres offering a range of options, Lumenta said. Also, plastic surgeons should be consulted in the early stages of the decision making process.

Read more:

Afrikaners may be more likely to carry Angelina Jolie's breast cancer gene

More surgery for Angelina

Angelina Jolie inspires rise in breast cancer testing

Image: Angelina Jolie from Twitter

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