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Cancer screening and the celebrity effect

Wednesday 28 March, 2012 by Amy

Since the legendary former Melbourne football player Jim Stynes passed away from cancer last week, the number of calls to the Cancer Council Helpline has grown, especially from men. Some are calling to ask for advice on treatments or managing side effects, while others want to know how best to discuss their illness with their partner or children. Some are just calling to talk about their sense of loss and grief.

On the day Jim Stynes died, the volume of calls to the Cancer Council Helpline increased by 20%, an indication of how much Jim was loved and admired in the community, but also of the power of the ‘celebrity effect'.

Most of us love to read about celebrities. Even celebrities we don't like (sometimes especially celebrities we don't like). When a high-profile celebrity is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, it generally makes the news everywhere. The positive side of it is that it can also have a big impact on cancer prevention behaviour within the community.

We all remember when Kylie was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. Big news that is still regularly referred to in the media today - seven years on. At the time, a researcher at the University of Sydney examined the number of women aged over 40 who booked mammograms with BreastScreen in the 19 weeks before, the two weeks during and the six weeks after the publicity surrounding Minogue's illness.

He found a 20-fold increase in the news coverage of breast cancer on television, and bookings for breast screening increased by 40% in the two weeks of Kylie-related media publicity. He also found a 101% increase in bookings for women in the eligible age group for the BreastScreen program - 40 to 69 - who had not been screened before.

A similar story was the ‘Jade effect' in the UK when reality TV star Jade Goody was diagnosed, and subsequently passed away from cervical cancer aged just 27. The NHS revealed the number of women aged 25 to 64 who underwent cervical screening increased in the UK by 400,000 in 2008/09. Jade died in March 2009.

The increase in screening was even more prominent among younger women, with those aged 25 to 49 who underwent screening in the previous three years increasing from 69.3% in March 2008 to 72.5% in March 2009.

The great thing about the celebrity effect is the way it can spur people into cancer-prevention action - getting screened, wearing sunscreen, quitting smoking, losing weight. These simple actions can, and do, save our lives.

But why does it take a celebrity's death to remind us of this? We can't control everything in life, but there are lots of things we can do that will sure as hell improve our chances of living longer, healthier lives. So let's do them.

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