Media coverage of celebrity cancer cases impacts public awareness and cancer screening

When celebrities battle cancer, their stories make headlines around the world. Whether announcing their prognosis, seeking treatment or losing their battle, celebrities faced with cancer have a profound impact on the public – one that leads to increased interest in cancer information and screening, according to research by the University of North Carolina.

Seth M. Noar, PhD
Seth M. Noar, PhD

Seth M. Noar, PhD, associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, reviewed more than three decades of research on the impact of high profile cancer announcements from celebrities to determine their effect on the public’s cancer awareness and treatment and screening choices. The study, published in Health Communication Icon indicating that a link will open an external site., is the first major empirical review of the literature on celebrities and cancer, focusing on cases where a public figure either announced a cancer diagnosis or died from the disease.

“It was pretty clear that among these major figures, every study found an effect. Many of the effects were on cancer screening behaviors – increased mammography, increased cervical cancer screenings,” said Noar.  “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.”

A celebrity’s level of fame matters when it comes to influencing the public and the media, the study found. Original research conducted by Noar on the deaths of Apple CEO Steve Jobs and actor Patrick Swayze from pancreatic cancer showed that the Apple chief’s 2011 death saw a large spike in media coverage of and online searches for pancreatic cancer, while Swayze’s diagnosis and then death a few years earlier caused similar spikes in online cancer information seeking. In contrast, lesser-known figures such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009, barely moved the needle on media and public response.

“This kind of work is important because it can help us better understand the natural course of these events. By doing so, we can better anticipate and prepare for the next event,” said Noar.

A greater understanding of the interplay between the announcements and the public can also help the medical community prevent the possible negative consequences of celebrity announcements, whether through overuse of screening or adoption of unnecessary treatment. The study cites the example of how former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s decision to undergo a radical mastectomy in 1987 brought a resurgence of the operation despite the medical community’s attempts to move away from the aggressive surgery.

The celebrity announcements also provide a window where cancer communicators can reach a receptive public with calls for early screening and preventive lifestyle changes. Awareness campaigns timed to coincide with these announcements have the chance to gain greater media coverage and public interest in the window before interest wanes.

“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. As cancer communicators, we should take advantage of the opportunity that these events create,” said Noar.