The different faces of cancer

Having recently been introduced to a new website: What Cancer Can’t Do, how it is positioned highlights how differently cancer charities communicate and share their message. That prompted us to explore the different categories of cancer charities and compare how they position their message of cancer against this far too common disease.

We started by examining the differing categories: medical research, support or awareness raising.

Medical research charities

The primary objective of medical research charities is prevention, management and cure of cancer. They achieve this through their own research or by funding others to conduct research. They often present the most in-depth information about various cancers, treatments, symptoms, after effects and latest research. Leading charities in the UK, US and Canada in this field are charities such as Cancer Research UK, the American Cancer Society and the Canadian Cancer Society.

This very serious and approach to medical messaging was, exemplified by the Cancer Research UK logo. Until their recent rebrand, their logo showed ten dots, one of which was red to symbolise that one in ten people in the UK will die from cancer. This message drew attention to the fact that there is a 10% chance that you can die from cancer.

Awareness-raising charities

Charities that focus on awareness raising rarely share the same level of detail about cancer as the medical research charities. Rather, their primary objective is to ensure people understand the symptoms of cancer and get themselves checked by a doctor should they feel worried.

Coppafeel, a cheeky UK breast cancer charity, targets women to start checking their breasts—putting the power in the hands (literally) of the individual to find the cancer and alert their doctor. Its slogan “Knowing your boobs could save your life” does not even mention cancer.

In the US Livestrong, while being in the headlines for Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal, is a charity that has made many great strides in cancer awareness. Livestrong’s focus has been around personal victory over adversity and empowerment. Their tag line, “Get informed. Find support. Take control,” is about taking direct action and not allowing cancer to create victims. Rather than focusing on fear and death, they focus on strength, personal victory and taking action. To them, cancer is not a passive experience, but a challenge to be overcome and defeated.

Fuck Cancer in the US uses a statistic to demonstrate the value of awareness and early detection: 90% of cancers are curable in stage one. Abolish Cancer, another US charity, recently ran a campaign on Twitter with the hashtag #CancersNoJoke. Their $200 campaign saw a bank of celebrities tweeting, which resulted in 22.7m unique impressions, all raising awareness of prevention and early detection.

Support charities

The third type of cancer charities is support charities. Their objective is to ensure that people suffering from the disease or their families are well looked after and supported. They are the main advocacy charities from these three, ensuring that care for cancer sufferers is a priority.

In the UK, Macmillan Cancer Support has become famous for a fundraising event called the “World’s Largest Coffee Morning”. This event highlights a very basic but essential part of cancer care—sitting down with the sufferer and getting to know them over a cup of coffee.

Willow Breast Cancer Support Canada takes this notion to the next level. One of their main services is a helpline for cancer sufferers run by cancer survivors. In terms of a message of support, linking sufferers with those who have combated the disease is a motivating and encouraging message.

Perhaps one of the most interesting approaches to cancer awareness come from What Cancer Can’t Do. It approaches cancer by focusing on the positives in life that cancer cannot touch. The charity’s slogan, “Cancer cannot invade the soul,” puts cancer in a firm second position to love and human connection. It positions cancer as something not to be feared, but as something that is secondary to love, support and faith.

In recent weeks, Cancer Research UK has followed a similar approach. Their logo has changed to one that is representative of the people who are defeating cancer. Their new adverts share the slogans: “Now cancer should be scared” and “My research is killing cancer”, (from the perspective of a researcher).

Are we witnessing a shift in the way charities talk about cancer? Will more charities lead with stories of hope and love and messages of cancer being defeated? If you make cancer less of an enemy, are you also making it less of a threat? Does it become less important because it cannot destroy love, because it cannot destroy feelings? Does it make it less scary, and ultimately require less perceived effort to defeat it? Only time will tell.


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