Robin Roberts and Katie Couric have made headlines by literally working through their struggles with cancers (breast cancer for Roberts; her husband’s death by colorectal for Couric) publicly and reporting on course of treatments.
Fran Drescher has further endeared herself to Jews and everybody else around the world with her Cancer Schmancer book after her bout with uterine cancer.
While these celebrities and others, including Sheryl Crow, Christina Applegate, Melissa Etheridge, Tom Green, Scott Hamilton and Cynthia Nixon, have used their public figure status to raise awareness and funds for different cancers, there is also much to be said about public figures who succumbed to cancers in which fewer patients have survived: Yul Brenner and Dana Reeve (wife of Christopher Reeve) leave behind a legacy that has both touched and enlightened the public.
But, ultimately, can a celebrity sell better health practices and more frequent doctor visits as well as they can endorse a Nespresso machine or a clothing line? And are there some celebrities who present the argument and their cause better than others?
Doctors who have become public figures in their own right for their insights and medical advances have mixed opinions about how effectively a famous name can prompt a thoughtful response from their fans and the general public.
Dr. Robert Somer, co-director of the Genitourinary Cancer Center at Cooper University Hospital, notes that when it comes to men’s cancers, celebrities have been instrumental in taking the fear out of seeking treatment and going on with life once the disease has been treated. He cites comedian Tom Green and praises him for making the courageous move to videotape the process of his testicular cancer treatment back in the 1990s. And before he resigned as chairman and board member of the Livestrong Foundation, a cancer patient support group, Lance Armstrong was cited by Somer as well.
Dr. Generosa Grana, director of Cooper Cancer Institute, head of the Division of Hematology/Medical Oncology, and director of the Cancer Genetics Program at Cooper, meanwhile, cautions that celebrity cancer survivor testimonials can work both ways.
They can help if their discourse focuses on treatments and courses of action that are accessible to most people with insurance. Others who swear by some forms of alternative medicines or experimental treatments not tested by the mainstream medical establishment may unintentionally lead patients astray.
She sites some high-profile examples in both instances.
“With breast cancer, one celebrity who really made an impact was actress Christina Applegate,” says Grana. “When she had breast cancer and then had a bilateral mastectomy, and she took the time to learn more about her family history, it made many of her followers realize they, too, may have a family history they need to take more seriously.
“I do think people seeing somebody in the media who is as proactive with family history exploration as Applegate is helpful to the public.”
On the other hand, she cites Suzanne Sommers as an example of a celebrity who has taken a non-orthodox path, espousing bioidentical hormones for treatment, as “not a good example. While the course of action may have worked for her, this is not an ideal or tested path for the general population.”
There are other cancers, such as lung cancer, that are so difficult to treat because of the way its symptoms surface, that testimonials of celebrity patients and their families may be a “too-little-too-late.” While lung cancer for many patients is hypothetically preventable (by not smoking, or quitting, for example), some people may simply ignore the warnings.
Dr. Frank Bowen, director of the Lung Cancer Center at Cooper, explains: “The thing about lung cancer is that it is the black sheep of the cancer family. Everybody looks at it as if it is a smoking-related issue.
“However, there is that 20 percent of patients who get lung cancer who are not smokers, and we don’t know why. There is no good screening for it. With regards to public service announcements like Yul Brenner’s posthumous testimonial against smoking or Peter Jenning’s experience, people know smoking is bad, but they do it anyway.
“There is not much of an impact, because nobody wants to go out and say they have lung cancer through smoking because it is a frowned-upon habit.”
Bowen adds that patients often will not stop smoking until they get a serious health scare, or their smoking becomes so socially unacceptable for them that they will stop. The majority of his patients have a smoking history, but by the time they come in to see him, it is often too late. He also suggests that instead of celebrity no-smoking ads, a better solution may be to make cigarettes so expensive people won’t smoke.
On the other hand, Bowen admires the awareness efforts of former NFL star Chris Draft, whose wife died of lung cancer. Draft, who noted his wife, Keasha, was not a smoker, found out about the cancer when it was in Stage 4 and had no symptoms beforehand. The loss galvanized him to launch the foundation Team Draft, which is intended to create greater awareness for the importance of finding new ways to detect lung cancer earlier.
Even with the iron-clad commitment of Draft, Bowen says individuals have to be their own best advocate for making the best health-related decisions, especially in situations like lung cancer.