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How celebrities are helping others to fight cancer, by Emma Cowlard, consultant at PR firm Fishburn Hedges

13th August 2013


It wasn’t that long ago that Angelina Jolie’s preventative double mastectomy made headline news across the globe, yet people are now talking about the “Angelina effect“.

Jolie has been widely praised, especially by women, for raising the awareness of the importance of getting tested for faulty genes. Jolie underwent the procedure after finding out that she had an 87 per cent risk of developing breast cancer.

Hospitals are already reporting a rise in the number of women getting tested – Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital in London for example, has seen the number of breast cancer checks being carried out more than double since the star went public. Further afield, a breast cancer charity in New Zealand has seen calls to its helpline triple.

This so-called “Angelina effect” is nothing new. When Kylie Minogue was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 people talked about the “Kylie effect“. She too, was widely praised for going public, and the publicity that surrounded her battle with cancer is thought to have led to a 40 per cent increase in breast-cancer screening.

There is of course another famous face that I have to mention – Jade Goody. When the reality star announced in 2009 that she had terminal cervical cancer the British public were stunned. As she did in the rest of her life, Goody chose to live out her last days in front of the camera – the UK watched as this once attention-grabbing women succumbed to the disease. Whatever people’s views of Goody, it was heart breaking to watch and it had a huge impact on women all over the UK.  Around the time of Goody’s death, the Cervical Cancer Trust saw a 12 per cent rise in the number of females going for screening – a total of 400,000 extra women.

Unlike Kylie Minogue, who has managed to maintain a relatively clean and girl-next-door image – it is fair to say that neither Jade Goody nor Angelina Jolie have always been especially well liked. Angelina Jolie has been heavily criticised for various reasons, not least because she is seen as the reason for the break-up of Hollywood’s golden couple. And Goody was at the centre of a massive racism row when she appeared on Big Brother just a year before her death.

Despite this, both have since been hailed as female role models. Women held “we love you Angelina” signs at the premier of World War Z, and thousands of women wept and put down flowers when Goody passed away in 2009.

So why is this? In my view, it is because illness humanises celebrities. They might be super rich and beautiful, but like you and I, they are not invincible. Illness makes them seem real and approachable – likable even. The fact is when people are sick we are much more likely to forgive them their past ills.

The Kylie, Jade and now Angelia effect proves that celebrities can be hugely influential when it comes to raising awareness of different causes and campaigns – especially when it relates to a health issue they have a personal connection to. This is something public relations and advertising professionals the world over are very wise to, and they have been enlisting the support of famous faces for years.

However, some have questioned the lasting impact of celebrity support. For example,  just a year after Goody died, screening rates for cervical cancer fell right back down. Since her death only 63 per cent of 25-to-29 year olds have come forward to be tested.

This might be bleak reading, but I believe it doesn’t take away from the fact that Goody’s very public battle with cancer almost certainly led to lives being saved. And while I am sure the numbers of women getting tested will drop once the noise around Jolie has faded, her announcement alerted women everywhere to the existence of the faulty gene – and will, I am sure, empower other women to make the same difficult choice.

I couldn’t care less about the day-to-day goings on of Hollywood’s A listers and I have never been interested in the personal lives of reality TV stars. But, if they are talking about cancer prevention my ears prick up. I for one, vow never to miss a smear test, and as a direct result of Jolie I have already asked my mum about our family’s health history. I never thought I would say this, but thank you Angelina.

Emma Cowlard is a consultant at PR firm Fishburn Hedges



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