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Celebrities and Cancer in 2013: The Power of Fame to Raise Awareness

January 30, 2014 | Alexandra Mulvey

Angelina Jolie shocked the world in May 2013 when she announced via a New York Times op-ed that she had undergone a preventative double mastectomy. Jolie has a defective BRCA1 gene, which means she has a much higher than average risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer, diseases which killed her mother, grandmother, and aunt. Knowing that she was likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer, Jolie chose a mastectomy and brought renewed interest to genetics and cancer, as well as debate about available cancer prevention tactics and cancer treatments. But as often happens when celebrities share their cancer story, little if any emphasis is placed on the need to fund life-saving cancer research.

Jolie was not the only celebrity with a cancer announcement last year. Roger Ebert, the long-time movie critic, died only two days after telling readers that he had been diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer following a hip fracture.

“It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.” Ebert had dealt with thyroid and salivary gland cancer and had been fighting different cancers on and off for more than a decade. If he spoke about the need for cancer research, however, the media gave little attention to it.

Many celebrities spoke out quickly after cancer diagnosis and treatment hoping to get others to be more aware of their own health. In late November, actor Hugh Jackman posted a photo showing he’d had basal cell carcinoma removed from his nose after his wife asked him to get the spot checked out. Jackman told media he’d done that in the hope that other people would use sunscreen and be more likely to get checked for cancer.

Total openness was the path of HLN host Dr. Drew when he told his viewers in September that he’d had his prostate removed after finding prostate cancer that was about to spread. SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott also chose to tell fans and viewers about his fight with cancer. After an emergency appendectomy in 2007, Scott’s doctors discovered he had appendix cancer that had spread. After two remissions, he announced in January that he was again undergoing treatment for cancer.

The usual October talk of breast cancer awareness and screening was turned upside down when Amy Robach of ABC News got an on-air mammogram and was told a few weeks later she had cancer. Following her shocking discovery, Robach had a double mastectomy and became an advocate for regular screening while continuing to fight the disease. CNN anchor Zoraida Sambolin announced her plans to have a double mastectomy shortly after Jolie talked about her preventative mastectomy. Sambolin had struggled with what to tell viewers as she underwent the surgery and other breast cancer treatment, and said Jolie’s advocacy helped give her courage.

Nearly 600,000 people died from cancer in the United States in 2013. We expect those numbers to go down as new cancer immunotherapy treatments become available, but we have to work to make that happen.

Many actors, reality TV stars, TV personalities and musicians announced diagnoses or remissions during the year and, sadly, some passed away in 2013. Among those who announced successful treatment were Dustin Hoffman, for throat cancer; reality star Camille Grammer, who had a hysterectomy to treat endometrial cancer; soul singer Sharon Jones, who completed chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer on New Years’ Eve; Dancing With the Stars co-host Brooke Burke, with thyroid cancer; actor Tommy Chong, with prostate cancer; pop star Anastacia, who had a double mastectomy; model Angie Everhart, with thyroid cancer; and actress Jennifer Saunders, for breast cancer.

Many others are still fighting the disease like The Little Couple star Jen Arnold, who found out she had cancer while she and her husband were in the process of adopting their second child. Arnold has been open about her fight, even as she faces additional complications because of the rare type of uterine cancer she has and her dwarfism.

A few celebrities opted to share with the public that they were living with a terminal cancer diagnosis, hoping to spread the word about cancer awareness. The Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon has been particularly vocal, as he continues to live with colorectal cancer, about the need for more people to get screened and be aware of the disease. Living with terminal brain cancer hasn’t stopped actress Valerie Harper either, and she was a contestant on Dancing with the Stars at the end of the year. Author Iain Banks and Youtube star Talia Joy Castellano both told fans of their terminal diagnoses before losing their battles in June and July, respectively.

Because of the bond many people form with celebrities, when celebrities are open about battles with cancer they open a public discussion about cancer. The past year has spurred much welcome debate about screening and current cancer treatment. But celebrities also need to call attention to the need for funding cancer research. Stars like Mark Harmon of NCIS, who appeared in a PSA campaign about cancer immunotherapy research, is one example. Prevention and early detection through screening will always be an important part of the conversation, but so is better treatment through scientific research.

Nearly 600,000 people died from cancer in the United States in 2013. We expect those numbers to go down as new cancer immunotherapy treatments become available, but we have to work to make that happen. Research is being done for all cancers and cancer immunotherapy is our best hope to prevent, treat, and one day cure cancer. Through the awareness generated from celebrity advocacy, and the Cancer Research Institute’s work, we can make incredible progress toward beating cancer.

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