THE BLOG

What Cancer Advocates Can Teach Us

10/06/2011 10:59 am ET | Updated Dec 06, 2011

In the United States, cancer gets plenty share of notice. It might be yellow LiveStrong bracelets or pink ribbons or runs for the cure. It seems like there are fundraising opportunities at just about every turn for a choice cancer.

This is made easier because nearly everyone has been affected by cancer. It may be a childhood friend, a parent, a classmate, or a co-worker, but cancer is easily found. I assumed that this shared experience made fundraising and awareness campaigns easier.

However, I was quickly disabused of this belief when speaking with Lance Armstrong and Doug Ulman (President and CEO of the Lance Armstrong Foundation). Armstrong said bluntly, "The stories about prevention don't sell," when telling us how journalists can support the fight against cancer.

Ulman expanded on this thought explaining how the global impact of cancer has expanded his understanding of the disease. "I didn't know three years ago that the vast majority of cancer cases were in the developing world. I imagine that most people don't understand those easy, low hanging fruit wins that we can implement today.  Whether it be tobacco control policy or the HPV vaccine, there are certain things that should happen today that can save lives."


Armstrong speaks at the Social Good Summit in New York City.

I thought of this in the context of public health at large. This constraint, by no surprise, is not limited to the issue of cancer. Health prevention is not a sexy topic that gets people excited to support. Talk about school nutrition programs and you might get a few people who want to take part. However, if you tell the story of a person in your life who has had cancer and how you will be honoring that individual by doing a marathon and the money is more easily raised.

This not surprising because it is the difference between telling the story of an individual versus a larger group. Plenty of research on charitable giving has shown that allowing for a personal connection creates a stronger pull to act. Singer illustrates this in his drowning child thought-experiment by trying to say that acting to save a drowning child should not change when distance is added. In expanding the local child drowning to millions of children suffering, Singer ends up breaking down the personal connection that caused the supposed action in the first place.

In addition to the problem of prevention, there is also the issue of hope creation. Ulman also looked towards how cancer studies are reported saying that they might instill a false understanding of solutions. "The majority of stories have focused on science. They have focused on clinical trials or science that may unfortunately never reach patients. The amount of calls we get after a story breaks on a new drug trial and people say, 'How do I get that?' I think it has created a little bit of a false hope for people. Which I think is a tough balance about when to get excited about the right things when and where."

Armstrong jumped in to give an example of this work saying, "We get a 40 year old woman from Minnesota who calls us and says, 'I want Lance Armstrong's drugs.' I had testicular cancer. There is no silver bullet."

At the end of the discussion, I realized that international development experiences many of the same problems as topics such as cancer. The problems of reporting and storytelling exist in any field advocating for some level of social change. Advocates for cancer like Armstrong and Ulman want to see interventions that act to reduce the likelihood of cancer.

I posted on how ONE will be facing a similar battle as it turns to food security. A topic that is not exciting but necessary when looking towards preventing the next drought from causing famine. The challenge, as CEO Michel Elliot notes, will be moving from simple stories to meaningful understanding. International development does not hold a monopoly over this obstacle, maybe it is time to look to others for solutions.

Images courtesy of the UN Foundation.