Celebrity Cancer News May Have Powerful Impact

Celebrity cancer news affected public awareness and screening behaviors

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Earlier this week, Amy Robach, of Good Morning America, announced that doctors discovered she had breast cancer after an on-air mammogram she had as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The 40-year-old Ms. Robach has decided to be aggressive in treating the disease and is having both breasts removed with a double mastectomy.

In May, Angelina Jolie told the world she has a mutation in a BRCA gene, which dramatically increases her odds of getting breast cancer. She underwent a double mastectomy, along with reconstructive surgery.

How does the public respond to cancer news coming from famous people?

According to a new study, cancer awareness shoots up, as does screening. Treatment choices even change.

"Work with your doctor to protect yourself from cancer."

Seth M. Noar, PhD, associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and member of the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and colleagues have studied the effects of public figures and cancer.

“A compelling event that has the potential to garner significant national attention and interest in cancer occurs when a celebrity or other public figure makes a cancer diagnosis announcement or dies from cancer,” the authors of this study wrote.

"The media's impact is to set the public agenda, not to tell us what to think, but what to think about," Marlene M. von Friederichs-Fitzwater, PhD, MPH, associate professor of hematology/oncology in the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine, told dailyRx News.

"Thus, when a celebrity or public figure makes a cancer diagnosis public, it causes us to think about cancer. When the person is someone we have in our homes every evening, they seem like family, and that has even more personal impact," said Dr. von Friederichs-Fitzwater, who is director of the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center Outreach Research and Education Program.

The researchers reviewed 19 studies conducted over the last 30 years relating to celebrities and how the public responded to their cancer news.

They found that news of public figures being treated for or dying from cancer "...had meaningful effects on a whole range of outcomes, from news volume to information seeking to choice of surgery to cancer screening behaviors.”

Dr. Noar said in a statement, “Many of the effects were on cancer screening behaviors — increased mammography, increased cervical cancer screenings.

"The effects were strong and immediate, but would typically wear off in a short period of time. You’d see a large burst of mammography in the month or couple of months right after the announcement and then it calms down,” said Dr. Noar.

The level of a person’s fame influences the reach of this behavior-changing impact, according to this study. The diagnosis, treatment and subsequent deaths of actor Patrick Swayze and Apple founder Steve Jobs from pancreatic cancer created huge spikes in online searches regarding the disease.

However, when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009, public reaction was minimal.

Take the example of Angelina Jolie, whose case was not covered in this study. After she announced her genetic risk, BRCA testing skyrocketed among women in the UK, as did the number of requests for double mastectomies, many of which were not needed, according to doctors there.

The same thing occurred when then First Lady Nancy Reagan chose to have a mastectomy to treat her breast cancer. Dr. Noar and his team discovered that her decision was linked to a trend in women choosing mastectomies over the less aggressive but equally effective lumpectomy, which involves removing only the tumor and surrounding tissue while leaving the breast intact.

After Mrs. Reagan’s story, young women also started having mammograms, even though they were younger than the recommended age range for breast cancer screening.

“The evidence suggests that these events act as ‘teachable moments’ where the public is much more receptive to cancer prevention and detection messages than is normally the case,” Dr. Noar said.

This study was published in the journal Health Communication.

This research was funded by the University Cancer Research Fund and the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

No conflicts of interest were reported.

Review Date: 
November 15, 2013
Last Updated:
November 18, 2013