Transfer breast cancer's effect to other illnesses

It was reported recently that a study of post-menopausal women who had breast cancer found that treating them with two hormonal therapies, tamoxifen first and exemestane two or three years later, raises their chances of survival dramatically.

The research was conducted by scientists who are part of Cancer Research UK, and the widespread reporting of these results demonstrates the extent to which breast cancer affects millions of people's lives in Britain, directly and indirectly. A reduction of a thousand deaths a year is a truly significant result, but the reason the press coverage has been so enormous is that it is breast cancer.

The same day, CRUK ran an advertising feature in The Times, featuring a friend of mine, the wonderful professor Hilary Thomas, an oncologist specialising in women's cancers, herself undergoing treatment for breast cancer. The headline read 'Why this doctor really understands', and the article discussed a variety of things Hilary has experienced, such as hopeless signposting in hospitals and how that affects you when you feel really ill.

The combination of the general news coverage about the study with the sympathetic advertising feature made great publicity for CRUK, an organisation I admire greatly. But it left me wondering how one can achieve the same effect with less popular healthcare causes. Take a common condition such as depression, which something like one in six of us will suffer from at some time in our lives. It is hard to show the positive thinking of a patient such as Thomas when talking about depression, because the very nature of the disease is that you don't feel positive. Take other forms of mental illness, such as obsessive compulsive disorder. Obsessives do not transfer well into a publicity campaign. Nor do older people, although I think we have done them no favours by frequently portraying them as frail when so many of them are feisty and tough as old boots.

But the point is a serious one. We all worry about breast cancer and, indeed, other forms of cancer. Many breast cancer patients seem articulate, attractive and engaging to the general public. We can empathise. But there's a real issue with how we help people empathise with less popular conditions, and how we can learn from CRUK's excellent public relations, without the material it has to start with.

I can see how the public image of older people might be improved. But organisations working in the areas of mental health, rare and long-term conditions and heart disease all need to look at how they portray their client groups. We need to adapt CRUK's excellent communications to fit other causes. Perhaps they could be persuaded to help mental health and older people's charities think through how they portray their clients.

It would be truly generous to do it, and it might improve other charities' fundraising powers without harming those of CRUK. It might also give people suffering from these conditions a real fillip.


- A study by UK scientists of 4,742 post-menopausal women with breast cancer found that the survival rate improved by 17 per cent if the women were given a new type of drug during the course of their treatment. The women were either given tamoxifen for a full five years or switched to exemestane after two to three years.

- An estimated 31,000 post-menopausal women have breast cancer each year.

In 80-85 per cent of cases, the disease is fuelled by oestrogen. Tamoxifen interferes with the activity of the hormone, whereas exemestane reduces the levels produced in a woman's body. CRUK said the treatment would prevent an estimated 1,300 deaths each year.

- Depression costs the UK economy an estimated £9bn a year, according to UK charity Defeat Depression. The Medical Research Council says that one in six people will become depressed at some point in their lives.

Most of the 4,000 suicides committed each year in England are linked to depression, according to the NHS.

- Obsessive compulsive disorder is thought to affect between 2 and 3 per cent of the UK population. It is listed among the top 10 most debilitating illnesses by the World Health Organisation in terms of loss of income and decreased quality of life, according to OCD-UK, the British charity for OCD sufferers.

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