Sunday 21 January 2018

So sorry cancer ad hurt but real debate needed

I hope the 4.5 million people reached by our Irish Cancer Society campaign take action and I acknowledge some of them were hurt, says John McCormack

While the merits of our campaign were being debated in the papers and on the airwaves, 150 people a day were hearing the words: “You have cancer.” One person every three minutes. 40,000 people a year. (Stock photo)
While the merits of our campaign were being debated in the papers and on the airwaves, 150 people a day were hearing the words: “You have cancer.” One person every three minutes. 40,000 people a year. (Stock photo)

John McCormack

Our thanks to the Irish public for engaging with a vital debate. Our recent campaign ignited a level of discussion and debate on cancer in Ireland that we have not seen in a very long time.

Women were discussing their BreastCheck letters over tea in their kitchens, people were ringing our Cancer Nurseline wondering what the typical signs and symptoms of different cancers were. We got calls querying local counselling services, something we are very proud to support. All of our national papers, radio stations, TV stations, regional media and social media channels were discussing, debating and arguing about cancer.

Over the course of January, we spoke to dozens of people. Some were battling cancer and telling us to keep on raising awareness, no matter how difficult that may be. Family members called to tell us if we had done a campaign like this years ago, perhaps their loved one would still be with them.

My team and I also dealt with some very difficult calls. People reached out to us as they were hurt by our campaign and it reignited a grief that was so very hard to bear. This was often a direct consequence of the cancer diagnosis that the person, their friend, or their family received.

On behalf of the society, I want to acknowledge the hurt that our campaign may have caused people. That was never our intention. And to anyone who has lost someone to cancer, I am truly sorry. Cancer takes far too many lives and being reminded of its destruction can make people feel extremely vulnerable and raw.

To everyone who reached out to us in the past month, I say a heartfelt thank you. The public is instrumental in what we do and each and every email, call, letter, post and tweet was read, listened to, considered and appreciated.

But I would like to get one thing absolutely clear. This campaign was undertaken to save lives. That was our one and only motivation. While the merits of our campaign were being debated in the papers and on the airwaves, 150 people a day were hearing the words: "You have cancer." One person every three minutes. 40,000 people a year.

More than 9,000 people die from cancer each year. As cancer researcher Dr David Robert Grimes so rightly pointed out during the campaign, nobody has a monopoly on loss and if we are to improve survival rates we need to have a very open and frank discussion, without fear of offence.

It is time to talk about cancer with courage, not in hushed tones, and eradicate the stigmatisation of the disease. We have moved on from "the Big C", a term coined because we couldn't even say the word cancer out loud. This campaign urges us to move on once again and discuss cancer without fear of upset. As the leading cancer charity in Ireland, if the Irish Cancer Society did not begin this vital conversation, then why would we exist? For more than 50 years we have talked about cancer softly and carefully. Despite this, we still see thousands of people every year get cancer who could have avoided the disease or who are diagnosed too late.

No other campaign we've run has had this level of engagement. We evaluate the impact of every campaign. How many people did we reach? How many people engaged with our message? How many people took action as a result?

This campaign exceeded all expectations. Conservative estimates would suggest that through traditional media channels we reached more than 4.5 million people. More than 700,000 people engaged with our campaign video on Facebook, our followers on social media increased, including the quadrupling of our average new monthly Facebook followers. The amount of people looking at our Reduce Your Risk webpage rose by one-and-a-half times the usual amount. Enquiries to our Cancer Nurseline, on Freephone 1800 200 700, and Daffodil Centres rose by over a half from the same time period in the previous month. The statistics speak for themselves. These people are now more aware and more informed.

Cancer is a very raw subject and it evokes a lot of emotions. But I am asking each person who reacted to our campaign to use that energy to help us stop cancer in its tracks. Encourage your friends and family to get screened, hold coffee mornings for your local cancer charities, post awareness messages on social media, talk to your GP about your health if you are concerned, make simple lifestyle changes and put your health front and centre.

During this campaign, people often said to me they don't need to be made aware of cancer, as there isn't a family that hasn't been affected by this horrible disease. Yes, we know too well how cancer affects families and, sadly, how it can take the people we love away from us. But is everyone taking action when and where they can? Almost six out of every 10 people eligible for the State's free BowelScreen programme are not engaging with it. Four out of 10 cancers can be prevented. These figures would suggest not.

We need to inspire people to take action. We have a duty of care to do so, however difficult that conversation may sometimes be.

John McCormack is CEO of the Irish Cancer Society

Sunday Independent

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