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Communications and Cancer: Changing the Conversation

The statistics are overwhelming—in 2018 alone, over 1.7 million cases of cancer were diagnosed in the U.S. And with such an unwelcome volume in the population, cancer has long been seen as something we “fight,” going back as far as when former President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, or, “The War on Cancer,” in 1971. The way many healthcare professionals talk about cancer hasn’t changed. The way most healthcare marketers communicate about it hasn’t either. And there are consequences.

“Science is telling us that the war metaphor is toxic,” says Chrisie Scott, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, Virtua Health (Marlton, NJ). “I’m constantly editing copy, and this language is always there. You can’t blame us, because cancer sets itself up for a perfect war metaphor. There is an enemy, and it is cancer. There are soldiers (patients), commanders (health teams), allies (families), and even weapons (treatment). The question is, has this language been helpful, or hurtful? If we knew something was hurtful for patients, we wouldn’t do it anymore, so shouldn’t the same thing be true about communications?”

Nonviolent Language

Through extensive review of how patients with cancer discuss their conditions and lifestyles on online forums, Scott and other researchers discovered that the violent metaphors are not just shunned—they don’t even exist in patients’ everyday conversations with one another.

“We’ve taken the lexicon of cancer and war and turned it into what we believe is the language of the consumer,” Scott says. “But when we look at patients with cancer, they are not using this same terminology. As marketers, we’re disciplined in understanding our audience and segmentation of audience. Yet, when it comes to cancer, we have all taken this shortcut and easily fallen into a metaphor that we can’t shake regardless of research.”

And, the continued perpetuation of this language may be inhibiting preventive behaviors as well as end-of-life discussions.

“Patients are less likely to engage in things that could help them, like cutting back on red meat and not smoking, when they’ve been exposed to terms like battling and fighting,” Scott says. “They see cancer as the enemy and not as something they can do anything about. Most people who have cancer do not feel brave. And making them feel like they could do something different to affect their outcomes is offensive.”

Additionally, someone at a terminal end of diagnosis may be reluctant to have end-of-life discussions because they don’t want to be seen as “giving up” or “losing a battle.” In fact, a U.K. study found that 27 percent of those with a cancer diagnosis in a 2,005-person cohort were reluctant to discuss dying out of fear they would not be considered courageous. Similarly, the study also found that 28 percent of people felt guilty if they were negative about their condition.

Personalized Messaging

In an effort to more genuinely connect with consumers in shaping an upcoming campaign, Virtua Health is using journey mapping to create more personalized communications.

“We’re gathering observations that provide some rich, deep insights into the patient journey,” Scott says. “We’re considering, for example, whether or not someone has a family history of cancer, if their diagnosis was a complete surprise, how old they are, and whether or not they have supportive family. All those things factor into someone’s journey.”

By integrating journey mapping into its marketing strategy, Virtua’s messaging can be more relevant based on what a patient is currently experiencing. This, in turn, allows the communicator to play a meaningful role in the consumer’s life.

“Patients are overwhelmed with information,” Scott says. “They’re desperately seeking a trusted source of information. We thought, can’t we, as content experts, be that trusted source? My belief is that Virtua, through this campaign, is going to be more relevant and trusted. Consumers are not going to think we took a cookie cutter template and used it to send them a message. As strategists and marketers, when any kind of messaging has to do with cancer, we have to look at the research and not talk about it the same way we are used to. We have to consider our impact.”

Learn more! Hear how other healthcare leaders are rethinking their communication standards. Order the 2019 Healthcare Marketing & Physician Strategies Summit Playback.

Exclusive Benefit for Forum Members! Hear more about changing the cancer conversation in this session with Chrisie Scott, Dean Browell, Lei Wang, and Terri Goren (recorded at the 2019 Healthcare Marketing & Physician Strategies Summit).

This post was developed in partnership with True North Custom, the official content partner for the 2019 Healthcare Marketing & Physician Strategies Summit.


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