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Debate: The shock tactics of the Irish Cancer Society's new campaign are hurtful

The Irish Cancer Society’s controversial “I want to get cancer” awareness campaign launched last week.

Caitriona O'Neill and William Gallagher

LAST WEEK THE Irish Cancer Society launched a new campaign – “I want to Get Cancer” – their most provocative and hard hitting yet. Some people are upset and angry that they chose to run with this message; others are supportive and say it was necessary to be provocative. We asked a commentator from the Irish Cancer Society and from the Irish Patients’ Association to tell us what they think.

YES. THE IRISH Cancer Society’s current campaign has sparked a lot of discussion, perhaps not in the way expected by either its creators or the organisation.

Let’s not forget that the ICS is a well-funded organisation, employing highly professional and well paid staff. It has a solid governance structure. Despite all this, I believe that on this occasion they made an unintentional mistake. It may be judged a success in the boardroom but I wouldn’t share that view.

Lady Gaga, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Oprah Winfrey and our own Conor McGregor all practise the law of attraction and positive affirmations in their daily lives. Basically, if you focus on your “wants” and visualise them, this prepares your mind to attract the things you expressly want. The ICS set out wanting to be controversial and by the law of attraction they certainly achieved that.

My personal experiences of cancer

My father died too young from cancer. So too did some of my aunts, uncles and most recently my son’s father-in-law. Last September he had the joy of walking his darling daughter up the aisle and delivering a powerful speech at the reception. For 8 minutes and 38 seconds they danced to his favourite song: American Pie. Two weeks later he died following his short illness from cancer.

I’m not alone. These experiences are common to many people throughout Ireland and around the world. The point I would like to make is, what a shock if they were alive today to witness this campaign? Or if they were just beginning their journey with cancer? Just think of their wives, husbands, sons and daughters, friends and neighbours and how this campaign affects them too.


Following the campaign launch, the ICS had to “explain” their highly sophisticated campaign so that us mere mortals could understand it.

The campaign was two years in the making and a lot of thought went into it. I would assume the advertising agency and the ICS were guided by various focus groups made up of patients, families and carers of cancer patients. It would be interesting to read their feedback and recommendations regarding the opening catchphrase. Maybe I’ve got it totally wrong?

Perhaps there is a lesson for all campaigners in healthcare and that is to have ethical guidelines that ensure that the patient is at the centre of all healthcare campaigns in future.

Stephen McMahon is co-founder of the Irish Patients Association ​and has 21 years of patient advocacy experience both nationally and internationally. He is a former board member of the International Alliance of Patients Organisations.

IRISH CANCER SOCIETY WANTS YOU TO GET CANCER IN 2017 Pictured at the launch is cancer survivor Louise McSharry, 2FM DJ. Source: Andres Poveda

NO. THE DECISION to run this campaign was not taken lightly. For over 50 years the Irish Cancer Society has been doing all we can to help those affected by cancer, by funding cancer research, by raising awareness of what people can do to reduce their risk of getting cancer, and by offering practical supports and help to those in need.

But over the past number of years, we have watched the cancer rates rising steadily. By 2020, 1 in 2 of us will be getting cancer in our lifetime. As it currently stands, over 150 people in Ireland every day hear the words “you have cancer”.

Not walking on eggshells

We realised, as the leading cancer charity in Ireland, we needed to do something drastic.
For too long we have spoken about cancer in hushed tones and with a sense of fear and avoidance. It’s almost like we’re walking on eggshells around cancer. We also know that some people even think that a cancer diagnosis is inevitable.

There is nothing inevitable about cancer. Forty percent of cancers can be prevented and there’s lots that we can do to reduce our risk. We can attend for screening, we can go to our GP if we have signs and symptoms, we can find out what supports are available from the Irish Cancer Society and other agencies.

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Thanks to advances in cancer research, 6 out of 10 cancer patients will survive to 5 years and beyond, double the survival rate of 40 years ago. At the Irish Cancer Society, we want people to get the facts about cancer and know that we’re here to help.

Campaign’s success

Since the campaign was launched last Wednesday we have seen a surge in demand for information and support services. Our Cancer Nurseline saw a 100 percent increase in enquiries from members of the public on Wednesday January 4 (the campaign launch day) compared to the daily average.

People wanted information on screening for cancer and how to reduce cancer risk. There was also an increase in enquiries from cancer patients looking for more information about their cancer diagnosis, information on side effects of treatment and people looking for psychological support.

We know our campaign has been provocative. But thanks to it, conversations about cancer are taking place in homes across the country. People are picking up the phone and going online because they want to “get” cancer, by getting informed.

If, as a result of “I want to Get Cancer”, even one more person attends their cancer screening appointment, or makes a lifestyle change that reduces their risk of contracting the disease, then it will all have been worth it.

Gráinne O’Rourke is Head of Communications at the Irish Cancer Society.

What do you think of the campaign? Is it unnecessarily provocative? Let us know in the comments below.

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About the author:

Caitriona O'Neill and William Gallagher

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