Challenges in Oncology Treatments Arise When Patients Rely on Celebrity Cancer Stories Over Scientific Research

Share this content:
While many patients may not follow the latest scientific research, many do follow celebrities.
While many patients may not follow the latest scientific research, many do follow celebrities.

It's an unfortunate fact that not all patients follow the latest scientific research, but many follow celebrities. 

Particularly when it comes cancer diagnoses, there can be serious consequences for patients who trust the stories and treatment plans recommended by celebrities.

“Physicians can't ignore the power celebrities have either to perpetuate or to neutralize false impressions of cancer management,” wrote Divya Yerramilli, MD, MBE, a resident in the Harvard Radiation Oncology Program in Boston, Massachusetts, and colleagues, in an article published in the AMA Journal of Ethics.1 “Celebrity stories that further perpetuate false understandings of prognosis might lead cancer patients to seek care that might not align with their true wishes had they possessed a realistic understanding of their disease.”

The article outlines some of the risks for patients receiving their information from celebrities' stories, as well as how physicians can respond.

For example, Senator John McCain returned to work voting on legislation in the Senate shortly after his glioblastoma diagnosis. His story made it seem like cancer could be manageable with the latest aggressive treatment plans, when this is not always true.

Similarly, Angelina Jolie wrote and spoke widely about the preventive measures she took against breast cancer, including a double mastectomy and a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy after learning she was a carrier of the BRCA1 mutation. While Ms Jolie encouraged people to “choose what is right for you personally,”2 many studies have found, according to Dr Yerramilli, that the simple publication of her story has an impact on “patterns of care on a broad level, with patients seeking information regarding risk-reducing double mastectomy and asking for genetic testing.”3-5 

“Narratives might perpetuate false hope for many patients with that cancer,” Dr Yerramilli wrote, “preventing patients and their families from pursuing appropriate care and psychological support.”

Physicians are advised to stay up to date on the latest celebrity cancer stories and other health care claims so that they can be ready to correct any misconceptions that patients may have.

“Physicians should understand that relying on media for health information is a structural risk factor,” the authors concluded, “and warn patients about the potential effects of the media on their perceptions of cancer and decisions regarding their own health care.”

References

  1. Yerramilli D, Charrow A, Caplan A. How should clinicians respond when patients are influenced by celebrities' cancer stories?  AMA J Ethics. 2018;20(11):E1075-1081.
  2. Jolie A. Diary of a Surgery. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/24/opinion/angelina-jolie-pitt-diary-of-a-surgery.html. March 24, 2015. Accessed November 20, 2018.
  3. Evans DGR, Barwell J, Eccles DM, et al. The Angelina Jolie effect: how high celebrity profile can have a major impact on provision of cancer related services. Breast Cancer Res. 2014;16(5):442.
  4. Juthe RH, Zaharchuk A, Wang C. Celebrity disclosures and information seeking: the case of Angelina Jolie. Genet Med. 2015;17(7):545-553.
  5. Noar SM, Althouse BM, Ayers JW, Francis DB, Ribisl KM. Cancer information seeking in the digital age: effects of Angelina Jolie's prophylactic mastectomy announcement. Med Decis Making. 2015;35(1):16-21.

Free E-Newsletter