If brands are defined by perceived experience, cancer has a huge image problem. Far from an automatic death sentence, cancer has become a highly treatable disease for many patients; 50% of people diagnosed now survive more than 10 years. Yet, the idea of cancer continues to terrify people.

In a panel discussion produced by Ogilvy Health at SXSW, a group of cancer experts explored how the realities of cancer treatment stack up against the perception people still hold of the disease and address how healthcare might evolve the “cancer brand” into a true reflection of oncology today. 

The panelists included:
Christianna Gorin, chief growth and strategy officer, Ogilvy Health
Dr. Kathryn Hudson, hematologist/oncologist, director of survivorship, Texas Oncology
Sarah Krüg, executive director, CANCER101 and founder, Health Collaboratory
Murray Aitken, executive director, IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science

Christianna Gorin, chief growth and strategy officer, Ogilvy Health, explained that because brands can be defined as the promise of an experience, cancer can — and should — be viewed as a brand. “We never talk about cancer as a brand, but it comes with a set of expectations and the overwhelming consensus is negative,” she said. 

This idea was further proven through a study that Ogilvy Health commissioned by WPP’s Brand Asset Valuator (BAV) that measured the cancer brand across 17 brand attributes and against other life-impact events such as divorce and Alzheimer’s. Cancer was found to be the most terrifying of life-impact brands, ahead of the loss of a loved one. 

“It’s hard to get past that initial gut punch when you hear the words, ‘You have cancer.’ Cancer provokes a strong sense of fear,’ noted Sarah Krüg, executive director, CANCER101 and founder, Health Collaboratory.

In too many cases, that fear becomes a barrier to better outcomes, as fear of cancer causes many people to avoid life-saving screenings, diagnostic tests and vaccines. “Earlier identification of cancer results in lower mortality and morbidity, so it’s important to identify cancer early,” said Murray Aitken, executive director, IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science.  

IQVIA research revealed that, while cancer screening understandably dipped 90% during the spring and summer of 2020, it still remains about 10% less than the baseline prior to the pandemic. “We never caught up with all those missed screenings, so more patients are presenting with more advanced cancers. The impact on outcomes is real,” said Aitken.

“This is something I see all the time,” added Dr. Kathryn Hudson, hematologist/oncologist, director of survivorship, Texas Oncology. “People are afraid to get genetic testing because they don’t want to know if they’re at an increased risk for cancer.” Those are precisely the patients who would benefit most from screening and early detection.

While there is more work to be done to improve life with cancer and cancer outcomes, oncology has seen huge advances — a fact that should cast the disease in a more optimistic light. A WPP BAV study commissioned for the panel by Ogilvy Health showed that cancer deaths have declined 33% since 1991; almost 70% of people with cancer (including patients with metastatic cancer) survive more than five years post-diagnosis. The innovation pipeline is full, with 1,300 cancer vaccines in development and more than 2,300 gene therapies being investigated. By 2032, the number of U.S. cancer survivors is projected to increase by 24.4%, 

“An explosion of innovation and emerging science is revolutionizing and personalizing the way in which we treat people with cancer,” added Krüg. Ogilvy Health’s study, which measured cancer against other life events like divorce, domestic violence and Alzheimers, showed that cancer rated the highest was viewed as the most disruptive, even higher than the loss of a loved one.

“Most oncologists are very optimistic, but when I tell someone they have cancer, they are almost always devastated. It’s understandable, but an important part of my job is reframing for patients what they’re going through and what to expect,” said Hudson.

Language matters

Reframing how we talk about cancer is critical, and the experts agreed that healthcare professionals need to speak more intentionally about the disease with patients.

“Words have the power to heal, to guide and motivate, but they can also confuse or mislead the average person,” said Krüg. “When we did a study that asked which words caused confusion in healthcare, we received over 4,000 terms. It’s important for us to reframe the way we’re communicating with patients to ensure that we’re simplifying it and not causing that fear factor.” 

Aitken objects to using the word hope when speaking about cancer. “It suggests waiting for something to happen and ignores the fact that we actually understand a lot more about many more cancers now than we ever did before,” he said. “We have tools, treatments and therapeutics and evidence about what works. We have science underpinning this progress. This is not just hope.”

Aitken dislikes referring to cancer treatment aspirations as a “moonshot.” “We landed on the moon almost 60 years ago,” he said. He suggests that “ground shot” is a more appropriate term because medicine has the capabilities and knowledge to move the needle on screenings, treatment and outcomes, but execution often falls short. Aitken said the healthcare industry needs to examine the “enormous disparities in outcomes in the U.S. between white versus Hispanic and Black patients.” 

Hudson dislikes “fighter” terms that are often applied to cancer. “I don’t like the onus that it places on the one living with cancer, it implies that if one tries hard enough, they can cure their own cancer. It’s not a battle or war. Cancer is something one lives with. It can be managed and treated. And sometimes, one does not survive that,” she said.

Krüg added that extensive research shows that war metaphors can have a negative connotation for many cancer patients. Survivor is another term that generates dislike among patients. “Now we use the term, thriver,” she noted.  

More research, improved trust

Panelists considered the message that extensive funding of cancer research sends to the public in light of the fact that investment in cancer research outpaces that of any other health research topic. Almost 70% of people living with cancer are surviving five years post diagnosis and the BAV study showed that people do believe progress is being made against cancer. 

“The level of funding is a positive indicator of what’s ahead,” said Aitken. “We expect more than 100 new cancer drugs will be approved and launched in the next five years. That’s a lot of innovation across a number of different cancer types.” 

Hudson would like to see more research funding for cancer prevention, because cancer is becoming more prevalent, especially in young people. “As a medical community, we need to focus more on prevention,” she said. Weight, alcohol and smoking are likely to increase risk of cancer so those are things we should be focusing on.”

Hudson also supports research focused on improving the cancer experience for patients living with the disease. “Cancer can feel very isolating, especially during those first steps after diagnosis,” she said. Texas Oncology focuses on having a cadre of support available that includes the care team, patient advocacy groups, patient navigators and mental health professionals. “All of these components can make cancer more manageable and make patients feel more supported,” she added.

Krüg would like to see research on the impact the disease has on caregivers and families of patients. She added that any patient engagement strategies need to tie into clinician engagement strategies to succeed and they should always seek to bolster trust in the healthcare and pharma industries. 

“Every strategic imperative that any healthcare sector puts in place should have a KPI tied to rebuilding trust,” she said. “Learn from the epic failures of our past and rebuild that into paving that path forward.”