Recruiting Celebrities to Speak about Lung Cancer Awareness : Oncology Times

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Recruiting Celebrities to Speak about Lung Cancer Awareness

Holtz, Andrew

Oncology Times 25(22):p 18-20,25, November 25, 2003. | DOI: 10.1097/01.COT.0000290751.79157.22
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By definition, celebrities loom large in popular culture, including popular attitudes toward diseases. “Celebrity involvement gives a disease credibility,” says Janet M. Healy of the Alliance for Lung Cancer Advocacy, Support, and Education (ALCASE).

“It tells the public that this disease matters, that [the celebrity] knows something about it personally, and here is what she or he thinks needs to be done. And usually a celebrity will also mention an organization.”

Ms. Healy said she tries to recruit prominent lung cancer patients, or their friends or relatives, to help raise the profile of the disease and ALCASE's programs. But she sees that even though celebrities may be trend-setters and opinion leaders, few want to venture too far into the avant-garde by challenging popular notions about lung cancer.

She said she's approached everyone she knows of who might have a personal stake in the fight against lung cancer. “Mostly we just don't get responses, we just don't get replies,” she reports.

Recent efforts include inquiries to former major league baseball player Bobby Bonds (who died in August) and his son, current star slugger Barry Bonds, as well as rock musician Warren Zevon (who died in September). Zevon's family did not respond to questions for this article that were forwarded through his publicist.

ALCASE wants someone who could do for lung cancer what Elizabeth Taylor did for AIDS or what Christopher Reeve did for spinal cord injury.

“What ALCASE desires to find is a spokesperson who would stand with and for people with lung cancer; and focus on those issues, rather than splitting the focus and addressing smoking and tobacco, because other organizations are doing that,” Ms. Healy explained.

Stigma & Short Survival Times

As with lung cancer advocacy in general, as noted in Part 1 of this report in OT's Nov. 10 issue, stigma and short survival times impede efforts to recruit celebrities.

Ms. Healy said she did manage to get in touch with Walt Disney's daughter. “She was interested, but she said she'd already committed to working with the American Lung Association to stop smoking. And she actually said to me, ‘Well, you know, my father brought it on himself. He smoked for years and years.’

“I think her comment sums up one of the main obstacles, which is that in the public mind, in the minds of the families, and even in the minds of people who actually have lung cancer, the connection with smoking, the blame and the stigma that brings, is persistent and widespread.”

During the last year of his life, Warren Zevon recorded a new album and made a few appearances, but he did not rail in public against lung cancer or cry out for more research or better treatment.

On the David Letterman show, Zevon joked that he “might have made a tactical error by not going to a physician for 20 years.” And in a documentary that aired on the VH1 cable channel this summer, he displayed a stoic and contemplative attitude toward his fate.

“I'd be an idiot if I was not less than pleased about being doomed, but I feel lucky or blessed to be around for so long, and I still love every day,” he said on the program.

The Katie Couric Effect

Researchers at the University of Michigan School of Medicine recently documented the power of celebrities to influence health attitudes and behaviors.

In a paper in the July 14 ArchivesofInternal Medicine (2003;163:1601–1605), the researchers reported what they termed the “Katie Couric effect.” The study measured a jump in colonoscopy rates after the NBC host underwent a live, on-air colonoscopy on the “Today Show” in March 2000.

Lung cancer has not received that kind of star billing. “The first consequence of not having celebrity involvement is the lack of media coverage of lung cancer, distinct from tobacco and smoking,” Ms. Healy noted.

“The media just doesn't get the extent of this disease. And if they do, they are likely to make an immediate connection with tobacco and smoking and stop there.

“I think once you bring a celebrity on the scene, all sorts of additional press interest is possible. You get into the family, you personalize the lung cancer stories, and you have a chance to bring in the issues that have not yet been covered.”

Study Documents Lack of Coverage & Absence of Celebrity Advocacy about Lung Cancer

An analysis of 600 randomly selected media stories about cancer, presented in a poster session at the 2001 ASCO annual meeting, documented the lack of coverage and the absence of celebrity advocacy about lung cancer.

Diane Blum, MSW, Executive Director of Cancer Care, reported that most of the stories were about breast cancer and less than one in five was about lung cancer.

In contrast to stories about other common cancers, none of the lung cancer stories mentioned celebrities. The stories about lung cancer were dominated by tobacco and devoid of substantive information about medical research, she found.

Even public relations experts who focus on health and science issues say it's tougher to pitch lung cancer stories.

“I do encounter different reactions with lung cancer than with, say, breast cancer,” Shellie Byrum of Spectrum Science Public Relations commented by e-mail.

She had been working to drum up interest in Lung Cancer Awareness Week (LCAW), which ran from November 17 to 21. “But sadly, my pitching LCAW hasn't garnered a great response, at least with magazines and cancer centers,” she said.

“I suppose for some people lung cancer equals smoking, and smoking is a personal choice. So in their minds, lung cancer is almost a choice, and patients shouldn't get sympathy for that.”

Tobacco Advertising Stifling Coverage?

She said she also suspects that tobacco industry advertising stifles coverage by major magazines. Her suspicion is supported by analyses of popular women's magazines for the American Council on Science and Health, which indicate that although these publications are chock full of stories about health, the magazines that carry cigarette advertising rarely, if ever, mention lung cancer.

Even when there is media interest, getting celebrities to follow through isn't a sure thing. For example, Ms. Byrum offered S. Epatha Merkerson (star of Law & Order), singer Richard Marx, and model Christy Turlington as “celebrity spokespersons” for Lung Cancer Awareness Week, all of whom have a personal connection to the disease. However, more than four weeks of effort failed to deliver a single celebrity interview for this article.

Despite many disappointments, Janet Healy at ALCASE keeps plugging away. “I used to gnash my teeth over these things, but the older I get, the more I sigh and accept life's dilemmas,” she said.

And she cherishes any successes. For example, at this summer's Annual Conference of Mayors she got several big-city mayors to record radio Public Service Announcements about the lung cancer risk among minorities. The spots were scheduled to air this month.

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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