Breast cancer awareness and the celebrity spotlight

Like it or not, celebrities can have an impact on the way we live our lives. They can influence the way we talk, walk, eat, dress and even smell. (Consider “Circus Fantasy” by Britney Spears.) But unlike other celebrity-named fragrances that shall remain nameless, not all of that influence stinks. In fact, when it comes to raising awareness of medical conditions like breast cancer, it can actually come in quite handy, as a recent story on points out. But (you knew there was going to be a but), it can also lead to confusion.

First, the positive. As Donald Northfelt, M.D., medical director of the Mayo Clinic Breast Clinic in Arizona, tells, the list of celebrities who have "gone public" about their experiences with breast cancer -- Angelina Jolie, Christina Applegate, Suzanne Somers, to name a few -- has created "a buzz" and “broadened the conversation" physicians are now having with female patients. “They will specifically inquire about whether they have a genetic disposition to breast cancer,” Dr. Northfelt says. Some patients, he says, “don’t ask a lot of questions because they’re afraid and just accept the guidance of the doctor. These situations lead women to be more engaged.”

But Dr. Northfelt and others say that celebrity publicity can also lead some women to make drastic, even unnecessary, decisions when it comes to their health. For example, as you probably know, Angelina Jolie underwent a double mastectomy this past May after learning she carried a BRCA1 gene mutation that reportedly gave her "an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer." While Jolie’s decision was strictly "one of prevention," it's been "misunderstood" by some women who do not carry the same BRCA1 gene (less than 1 percent of the population does carry the gene) but who are now choosing to have mastectomies instead of "opting" for treatment. “It’s sad because women with half-inch breast cancers are choosing to have mastectomies because Angelina Jolie did,” Robert Kuske, M.D., of Arizona Breast Cancer Specialists, tells

Still, with October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month and all, Dr. Northfelt and Dr. Kuske say they're both happy to see a more public discussion about breast cancer.

For tried and true information, including causes, symptoms and risk factors for breast cancer, check out Then, let us know what you think about this story and others by sharing your comments on the In the Loop blog.