• Health awareness campaigns can dilute the reality of the illness the public is being asked to support by keeping things fun, light and colourful. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Campaigns to raise awareness about an illness are often celebrity-driven, gimmicky and memorable. But can they do more harm than good if they ignore the brutal truth about what life is like for people living with the illness?
Amal Awad

21 Apr 2016 - 1:08 PM  UPDATED 21 Apr 2016 - 1:29 PM

It wasn’t long ago that the Ice Bucket Challenge became a celebrated ritual to raise awareness and money for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), thanks to numerous videos of celebrities dumping buckets of icy water over their heads then tagging another to do it next.

Unlike the campaigns that highlight the effects of poverty in developing nations through the use of graphic and disturbing images of malnourished children (often critically called ‘poverty porn’), more often than not, health awareness campaigns dilute the reality of the illness the public is being asked to support by keeping things fun, light and colourful.

This is especially true for breast cancer, which on the back of wildly successful prevention campaigns, has become synonymous with the traditionally feminine and sweet colour pink.

But for the people actually living with an illness, the light touch required to draw in dollars for research and support services seems a world away from their personal experiences.

I am overly disturbed at the way that this disease is exploited by almost everyone, even restaurant owners now, to sell products... 

Sydney mother Ophelia Haragli runs the popular ‘My Sisters Keeper’ page on Facebook, where she talks in a very raw and frank manner about life with cancer. She recently posted on the damage such campaigns can do. After seeing a US restaurant spruik “pink hummus” in the name of breast cancer awareness, Haragli posted a lengthy diatribe about the reality of breast cancer, arguing that while campaigns like it indulge in feminine and pink themes to raise awareness, breast cancer itself “ain’t cotton candy and roses”:

“I am overly disturbed at the way that this disease is exploited by almost everyone, even restaurant owners now, to sell products that do jack shit for breast cancer sufferers but make people somehow believe that they have done something,” Haragli says.

Speaking to SBS Life, Haragli says she worries about the many breast cancer sufferers who are feeling the loneliness and fear that comes with the disease.

Haragli, whose Facebook following is close to 12,000, is critical of the lack of services and information for women with breast cancer that can actually improve their lives.

“I see little pink ribbons everywhere, and I see all of these pretty, attractive things – pink parties, morning teas. [But] where is this money going?”

Professor Sanchia Aranda, CEO of the Cancer Council Australia, which runs Australia’s prevention-oriented Pink Ribbon campaign, acknowledges the seriousness of breast cancer.

“Cancer is absolutely a brutal disease – that’s why we do what we do and why we are so passionate about fundraising,” Aranda says.

“I think anyone who goes to our Pink Ribbon website and reads the information about women’s cancers and the personal stories will understand the impact of the disease on those who have cancer and their families.”

But, she says, creative campaigns are essential to engaging and motivating the public to show support for women’s cancers.

“The messages behind the Pink Ribbon campaign aim to make more Australians aware of the realities of breast cancer and help Australians understand the need for more research, prevention, early detection and support programs.”

Aranda points out that Cancer Council support services extend to a free and confidential phone service, phone counselling, oncology nurses and a support team providing cancer information and resources, and direct women to local counselling, support groups, education programs, practical and financial assistance, accommodation and transport.

Who is the audience?

Haragli says she’s not the target audience with campaigns: “I think this pink stuff works for other people, it doesn’t actually work for people who have breast cancer.”

Bronwen Taylor, who in 2015 was diagnosed with Stage IVB Grade 4 Uterine Cancer, offers similar insights to Haragli, but is quick to point out that people with cancer are not the intended target with fundraising campaigns.

“It's marketing designed to appeal to people who know nothing about the grim realities of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. People aren't inspired to donate by weeping burns and infected scars, they want to feel like they can make a difference and be part of a positive community,” she tells SBS Life.

But as both Haragli and Taylor note, sickness doesn’t appeal to the healthy. Taylor attributes the success of the breast cancer awareness campaigns to “an excellent and dedicated marketing team along with key celebrity endorsement”. But she believes that campaigners could have cancer survivors on their marketing teams with some level of control.

Aranda says the Cancer Council tests its advertising materials with current supporters, including those impacted directly or indirectly by breast cancer, in order to deliver effective Pink Ribbon campaigns.

“Each year we also work alongside a range of women who have experienced breast cancer and invite them to be a part of our Pink Ribbon activity – they share their story as a part of our campaign, which is vital in increasing public awareness and demonstrating the need to fund research, prevention and support,” she says.

It’s also about getting across the resilience of women without the corny stuff, without the ‘soldier on’ and ‘survivors'.

The power seems to be in the real-life experience. Haragli says the Cancer Council Australia is getting it right on its Facebook page by featuring real-life stories of cancer sufferers.

“That stuff’s powerful. And also it’s not just about the gory stuff, it’s also about getting across the resilience of women without the corny stuff, without the ‘soldier on’ and ‘survivors’.”

Social media has certainly become an important medium for not only cancer sufferers, but friends and family trying to understand what those close to them are experiencing when they’ve been diagnosed.

For more information and support, visit Cancer Council Australia.

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