More women likely to have breast cancer screening after death of Rebecca Wilson

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Rebecca Wilson died from breast cancer on Friday. Photo: Craig WilsonCancer does not discriminate but community awareness of it does.


The luminous trail left by sports journalist Rebecca Wilson, who died from breast cancer on Friday, will include a new march of women to screening clinics, jolted by the reminder of their mortality.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting Australian women, with 300 cases per 100,000 women, but survival rates are high when it is detected early.

The latest report card on breast screening from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare showed the proportion of women aged 50 to 69 getting screened remained steady around 54 per cent between 2010 and 2015.

But after the death of a celebrity, clinics brace themselves for an influx of appointments.

They noted a spike in women seeking mammograms after Kylie Minogue announced that she had breast cancer in 2006, and the same phenomenon occurred after actress Christina Applegate’s diagnosis in 2008 and former first lady Nancy Reagan’s in 1987.

The biggest effect was felt by genetic screening centres after actress Angelina Jolie underwent a double mastectomy to protect herself against the illness that had carried away many of her family.

Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre clinical geneticist Paul James said younger women were often inspired to get genetic tests after a celebrity cancer case, but mammograms were not recommended for women under 40 because it was not as accurate as it was after age 50.

His study on the “Angelina Jolie effect” published in the Medical Journal of Australia found a threefold increase in genetic breast cancer testing comparing the 18 months before her mastectomy and the 18 months after.

Three years later, twice as many women are seeking the service than before.

“It had a peak, but we’re still seeing that residual effect,” Associate Professor James said.

“It’s quite remarkable that change, literally from one week to the next week the referral rate just shot through the roof.”

Familial cancer clinics had to become more targeted and narrow their tests to women who had a high risk of cancer, he said.

NSW Cancer Council director of cancer programs Kathy Chapman said breast cancer had a 90 per cent chance of survival five years after diagnosis, compared to 72 per cent 30 years ago.

But the breast screening rate needed to improve.

“We want to see that increase, and it’s particularly groups like Aboriginal women, and women in low socio-economic circumstances that are probably less likely to participate,” Ms Chapman said.

“Hopefully somebody like Rebecca Wilson who was a sports journalist and well known for her love of footy will be a reminder to women of all demographics and cultures to just be aware that breast cancer can take lives.”

Breast cancer is usually much more aggressive when it returns after a curative treatment, and Wilson would have known that her chances of survival were small when she chose not to publicise that it had returned.

Associate Professor James said women should be aware that her case was an outlier and nine out of 10 women survived if their cancer was detected early.

“Certainly there’s evidence that when you have these events more people consider these issues for the first time and come along to see people like our clinics and GPs and that’s a very positive thing.”

On Saturday, Wilson’s brother Jim Wilson paid tribute to his sister.

“On behalf of husband John, sons Will and Tom and the Wilson family we thank everyone for your kind words of support.

“We’ve been blown away by the messages of support and tributes to our beautiful Beck.

“Beck will forever be in our hearts and loved my big, fearless sister. She had a beautiful soft side and in times of need, Beck would be the first point of call.

“Beck was a trailblazer for women in sports journalism. She wasn’t afraid of taking on head office.

“We didn’t always agree professionally but at the end of the day we’d have a barney, then hug and go and have a vino.

“I love my big sister and Beck was a great mate – the best a brother could ever hope for and I’m a proud bro and yes Beck,at times, I’m a gibberer.”