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More women are choosing to have their breasts removed to avoid cancer

‘Angelina Jolie’ effect sees number of women choosing to have their breasts removed to reduce their risk of cancer DOUBLE – and women in their 20s are now having the procedure

  • Number of women considering double mastectomy doubled between 2010-2017
  • Angelina Jolie had the operation in 2013 after discovering she had a high risk 
  • Double breast removal may be offered to women with a BRCA gene mutation
  • Experts say it shouldn’t be taken lightly but may be a good idea for some people

The ‘Angelina Jolie’ effect has seen the number of women choosing to have their breasts removed to reduce their risk of cancer double, new NHS figures have revealed. 

The Hollywood actress, who carries a risky BRCA gene mutation, had a double mastectomy in 2013 after losing her mother, grandmother and aunt to the disease. It left her with an almost 90 per cent chance of developing breast cancer.

Three years before Jolie’s procedure, just 234 women with a family history of breast cancer had NHS hospital appointments for a preventative mastectomy.

In comparison, however, there were 480 appointments for this kind of treatment in 2017, NHS Digital figures reveal. Some 51 of these were for women in their 20s.

Experts say the procedure should not be taken lightly but that it may be a good idea depending on their circumstances.

Becky Measures, from Derbyshire, became the youngest British woman to have a double mastectomy in 2006, aged just 24, when she found out she carried a BRCA gene mutation. 

Angelina Jolie spoke publicly about having both her breasts removed in 2013, after she discovered she had inherited a gene mutation which meant she had an almost 90 per cent chance of getting breast cancer

A double mastectomy involves surgically removing both of a woman’s breasts with the intention of preventing breast cancer. 


This data, from NHS Digital, shows the number of appointments for preventative mastectomy relating to family cancer history for each year.

2009-10: 234

2010-11: 287

2011-12: 257

2012-13: 291

2013-14: 372

2014-15: 504

2015-16: 484

2016-17: 480

The procedure is usually reserved for women at very high risk of developing breast cancer, such as those with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation.

After her surgery, Jolie said: ‘It was just that I thought that I had gained information that I wish my mother had have known and I wish she had the option.

‘I wish she had the surgery in fact and it might have given her more years with my family and I wanted to just speak with other women and talk about options.

‘That is simply that, it is an option. I don’t encourage every woman to make the decision I made but I think it is really important that we all share anything we learn.’

The year Jolie’s surgery hit the headlines, the number of NHS appointments surged by 35 per cent from 372 to 504.

The figures relate to the number of times a patient sees a hospital doctor to discuss the treatment, rather than those actually undergoing the procedure.

‘Having your breasts removed should never be taken lightly’ 

Grete Brauten-Smith, clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care, said: ‘While the so-called ‘Jolie effect’ undoubtedly increased awareness of the faulty BRCA gene, encouraging more women to ask about preventative surgery, having your breasts removed is never a decision taken lightly. 


Becky Measures was just 24 when she had a double mastectomy in 2006

Becky Measures was just 24 when she had a double mastectomy in 2006, after finding out she carried the BRCA gene mutation which made her at high risk of developing breast cancer.  

Ms Measures is the daughter of Wendy Watson, who in 1992 at the age of 38, was the first woman in Britain to have a preventive double mastectomy to avoid breast cancer.   

Then 13 years later, having tested positive for the BRCA cancer gene, her daughter made the same stark choice. 

She said last year: ‘I was only ten when Mum had her double mastectomy, so I was aware from a very early age of our family history. But it was never scary for me: it was simply a case of “Mummy is having this operation so she can be with you for a very long time”.

‘To be honest, I didn’t think it would be anything I would have to deal with until I was in my 30s.

‘But then we had the awful news that my cousin Helen had developed cancer at 29. I was only 22 then, but decided to have my own genetic test done. In January 2004 I learned I was positive for BRCA1.’

She added: ‘Because Mum had been through it, having a double mastectomy seemed the most logical step. I would have my breasts removed, then rebuilt without the lethal lymph-nodes and tissue inside me.’

She then went on to opt to have her womb removed in a hysterectomy as a further precaution against the disease, after giving birth to her second child last year.  

‘It can severely damage body confidence and recovery time after surgery disrupts every-day life, sometimes for months.

‘However, many of these women will have witnessed the devastating impact of breast cancer first-hand and want to do all they can to avoid the trauma their mothers or grandmothers may have gone through.

‘Vital’ for women to talk about their options 


Both genes produce tumour suppressor proteins that help to repair damaged DNA and keep cells’ genetic material stable.

A mutation in either gene means its protein isn’t made or doesn’t work properly so that DNA damage isn’t repaired correctly.

This makes cells more likely to experience more genetic alterations that can lead to cancer, pushing the risk to 85 per cent.

Preventative surgery can reduce the risk of cancer to 12 per cent – lower than that of the general population.

A mutation can be passed on from a mother or father and you have a 50 per cent chance of inheriting it if your parent is a carrier.

‘More needs to be done to help women with a faulty BRCA gene take control of their future health.  

‘It’s vital women can talk through all their options, including regular screening, and fully understand the risks and benefits of surgery before making any decisions.’  

The rise in the number of appointments about the procedure could also be down to scientific advances, according to one expert.

Martin Ledwick, head information nurse at Cancer Research UK said: ‘In 2010 we were only at the beginning of learning about the high risk gene and there wasn’t much known about it then. 

‘A lot more is known now so I’m not surprised there has been a rise. 

‘There are two types of women who might consider a double mastectomy and that’s someone who has had cancer once and found out they had the BRCA gene mutation so are at higher risk, or someone who has been tested for the gene and has a strong family history of breast cancer.

‘It would be unusual for a woman in her 20s to need a double mastectomy’ 

‘It depends very much on the patient – it’s not necessarily an extreme step. 

‘If someone is a carrier of the gene fault their risk of getting cancer is high, so the procedure might not be a bad idea at all.

‘But there are other options – it’s all down to individual circumstances.

‘It would be unusual for a woman in her twenties to need a double mastectomy.’

The procedure could be an option for young women if they were known to carry the Angelina Jolie gene and had a history of relatives developing cancer at a young age, Mr Ledwick added.

‘Angelina Jolie having the procedure definitely increased awareness of it,’ he said. ‘It was incredibly brave of her to stand up and talk about it. 

‘Although it’s only a small proportion of people who might be affected there were probably a lot of women who didn’t know much about [the genetic risks].’  

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