Cancer groups in message rethink

One in three Britons will at some time be diagnosed with cancer. Alex Black looks at the latest media strategies from major charities to combat the disease

More than a quarter of a million people in the UK contract some form of cancer every year. Of those, 150,000 die from the disease. It is an alarming statistic, particularly when you consider that there are more than 200 types of cancer and the fact that it is disease that often appears to strike at random.

While cash continues to be pumped into research for treatment and cures, cancer charities are increasingly focusing their messages on prevention.

Although people cannot make themselves immune, a healthy lifestyle can swing the odds in their favour. 'Our research indicates that at least half of all cases of cancer could be prevented,' says Cancer Research UK director of press and PR Carolan Davidge.

Educating people to check themselves for abnormalities has  been crucial to the prevention message. Breast cancer charities and government have long urged women to examine themselves, and that principle is being extended to encourage men to check for testicular cancer.

However, persuading people to fundamentally alter their diet and leisure habits is a bigger challenge.

The World Cancer Research Fund has spent the past 15 years studying the link between cancer and lifestyle. Head of education and comms Andrew Trehearne says the message 'wasn't heard for many years'.

'The press want triumph-over-tragedy stories,' he adds. 'We can't say: "Look, here's someone who has not contracted cancer because he leads a healthy lifestyle." It doesn't work like that, so you have to be creative.'

The Guardian health editor Sarah Boseley agrees: 'Prevention stories receive less coverage because the messages can be repetitive and not very exciting - don't smoke, don't drink too much, eat more fruit and vegetables. You can write that story occasionally, but not over and over again.'

New angles
Over the years the press have reported on research unearthing the latest cancer-busting foods, from green tea to beetroot. Last month, for instance, The Daily Telegraph ran an article headlined: 'You may not like it, but broccoli can beat cancer.' The story came from a scientific institute rather than a charity.

Generally, however, as Daily Express health editor Victoria Fletcher points out, stories driven by a message about healthy lifestyle are 'usually not strong enough for hard news'. She adds: 'We get studies sent in from charities and research groups, but stories about eating healthily and exercising lend themselves more to features.'

Despite the fear surrounding cancer, and the media's desire for sensational news angles, charities are adamant they are not out to scare people. Dr Richard Walker, chief executive of cancer research charity Tenovus,  says its recently launched 'Me or You' campaign is all about encouraging people with positive messages (PRWeek, 9 December 2005). 'We're saying you can make a real impact on preventing cancer with a healthy lifestyle - it's certainly not doom and gloom,' he adds.

Davidge agrees: 'Cancer frightens people enough as it is, so we decided to take away that fear and promote the message that cancer doesn't have to be a death sentence.'

Trehearne, meanwhile, says a combination of research, surveys and case studies is getting the message across. 'The press have started talking about heart disease in the context of a lifestyle-affected condition. Mainstream media are giving coverage to the way cancers can be prevented by leading a healthier lifestyle,' he says.

The challenge is getting people to appreciate the lifestyle link. While the correlation between smoking and lung cancer is easy to explain, cancer's connection to lifestyle is less easy to drum into the public consciousness.

'We surveyed the public on the connection between lifestyle and cancer, but people didn't seem to link the two,' says Cancer Research UK's Davidge.

Indeed, 66 per cent of the 4,000 people surveyed had no idea that obesity increased the likelihood of contracting some cancers. Only one third mentioned drinking less alcohol as a way of reducing risk, while 75 per cent were oblivious to the risks posed by HRT treatment or having a high number of sexual partners.

This research served as the launch pad for Cancer Research UK's 'Reduce the Risk' campaign, which kicked off in January 2005. This gave the charity's press team 'a huge number of news hooks to feed through to the media', says Davidge.

Credible data
But survey results have to be worthy of a news item and the data must have credibility. 'Some, but not all, journalists ask where the raw data for surveys come from, so you have to have a sample size of at least 1,000 people,' says Trehearne. 'They are a useful tool though. In one of our surveys, parents admitted they weren't good role models to their children when it came to diet and lifestyle. That generated good print and broadcast coverage.'

The message has had to be kept simple, says Bowel Cancer UK director of press, PR and public affairs Ian Beaumont: 'The media are there to make sense of a torrent of information that is generated by cancer charities and the medical sector.'

The Government's recent desire to tackle the nation's sedentary lifestyle, following 2004's White Paper on Public Health, has added impetus to the message being pushed by cancer charities. And with the media constantly scouring for fresh angles on issues such as obesity, binge drinking and sexual health, there is plenty of scope to thrust the 'prevention rather than cure' message onto the public stage.

Quit smoking, stay out of the sun, and...
'Cut your cancer risk by keeping a healthy weight.  Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week will keep you healthy.'
Cancer Research UK

'To prevent the risk of cancer and other serious diseases eat a plant-based diet. Plant food includes vegetables and fruit, pasta and bread. Experts say that five portions of vegetables and fruit a day could help reduce our cancer risk by 20 per cent.'
World Cancer Relief Fund UK

'Alcohol use, unsafe sex, low fruit and vegetable intake, obesity, lack of exercise, contaminated injections and indoor smoke from fuels are all risks that could be reduced.'
Harvard School of Public Health, Boston

'Traditional western diets contain many high-fat foods, but many people don't know that obesity is a major risk factor for certain cancers, such as ovarian cancer.'

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