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Celebrity Breast Cancer Fund-Raising

Familiar faces increase donations and improve awareness of the need for screening.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
From the WebMD Archives

When the powers-that-be at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston heard that singer Sheryl Crow, a nine-time Grammy Award winner, was headed their way to do a concert in Fenway Park last July, they called her to ask a favor. Would she mind stopping by to talk to patients?

The 44-year-old singer, who successfully underwent breast cancerbreast cancer surgery earlier this year, obliged cheerfully, telling the Dana-Farber staff she was happy to give back to those fighting the disease.

Crow talked to women and doctors at the institute's women's cancer center and its children's clinic. The unannounced visit, says Lisa McEvoy, a Dana-Farber spokeswoman, "came as a huge surprise to those waiting for appointments or receiving chemotherapy, bringing smiles to many patients' faces."

A month later, Crow was scheduled to give another Boston concert. A few weeks before the concert, two tickets, plus a "meet-and-greet" with Crow, were auctioned off at a Dana-Farber fund-raiser called the Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon. "The winning bid for the tickets was $1,100," McEvoy says. In all, the telethon raised nearly $3 million, and celebrity star power was part of the reason for the success, she says.

These days, celebrities are increasingly embracing all types of health-related causes -- testifying before Congress to lobby for more funds for research; donating time to appear on public service announcements to encourage people to get screened for diseases; and taking active roles at fundraising dinners, walks, and other events. "The bigger the name, the more they raise," says Janet Keller, a spokeswoman for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where star-studded fundraising events for breast cancer research and other causes are plentiful.

Celebrities for Breast Cancer

But the breast cancer cause seems to attract more celebrities than many others. Some of the celebrities involved don't have personal experience with breast cancer, but many who donate their time do.

The pool of celebrity fund-raisers who have dealt with breast cancer is, unfortunately, large. In recent years, in addition to Crow, Suzanne Somers, Jaclyn Smith, Melissa Etheridge, Kate Jackson, Elizabeth Edwards, Richard Rountree, and the late singer-songwriter Soraya, have gone public with their breast cancer battle.

October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is an especially busy time for celebrity fund-raisers, where the event guest lists sometimes look more like a Who's Who for an entertainment award show. Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz, Kelly Ripa, Demi Moore, Beyonce Knowles, Christina Aguilera, and Crow are all expected to attend an Oct. 5th benefit hosted by Fred Segal Fun, a trendy Santa Monica, Calif. boutique, and Cedars-Sinai's Women's Cancer Research Institute.

Having such star power at fund-raising events and behind breast cancer campaigns does more than push the funds raised higher, experts say. It also increases public awareness about the importance of early detection. For survivors, seeing a celebrity who has overcome the disease can provide hope.

But, some warn, the marriage of celebrities and breast cancer isn't perfect. The celebrity serving as a spokesperson must be picked carefully, say those who "have been there, done that," to be sure the message sent is that of the organization.

What Happens When Stars Speak?

"Celebrity involvement creates the kind of buzz; the kind of status that you want with an event," says Art Ochoa, JD, senior vice president of community relations at Cedars-Sinai.

After such an event, he says, requests from community organizations for speakers on cancer prevention typically increase. The more celebrities, the more media coverage, he tells WebMD.

When an event has a guest list of hot celebrities, it also attracts more interest from potential donors and supporters, says Elyse Walker, a celebrity stylist and boutique owner in Los Angeles.

On Sept. 30, Walker will host the second annual Pink Party, a $500-a-ticket nightclub-style gala at a Santa Monica, Calif., hotel for Cedars-Sinai's Women's Cancer Research Center.

"I go out and collect money from my designers," says Walker, whose mother died at 42 from ovarian cancerovarian cancer. "The more celebrities, the more interested the designers are [in supporting it]," she says. Last year, she raised nearly $500,000.

This year's Revlon Los Angeles Run/Walk for Women, presented each year by the Entertainment Industry Foundation, featured Desperate Housewives stars Marcia Cross, Felicity Huffman, and Doug Savant. Since it began in 1993, the Los Angeles and New York events have raised more than $37 million for women's cancer research and outreach, according to the foundation.

Tracking the exact financial impact of a celebrity's involvement is difficult. But those who organize events are certain it is a big reason the money flows in.

For instance, says Keller, of Cedars-Sinai, the Women's Cancer Research Institute has an annual budget of $2.3 million and one-fourth of that is designated for breast cancer research. This year, four fundraising events will benefit the institute, and each has plenty of celebrity involvement, Keller says.

More Than Money

While it's difficult to quantify the effect of celebrity involvement on the bottom line, one thing has been shown: Breast cancer awareness and the need to get screened increase after a celebrity speaks out, whether or not she has the disease.

After Australian-born pop singer Kylie Minogue, now 38, reported in May of 2005 that she had been diagnosed with breast cancercancer, the news made the front pages of eight of Britain's 10 daily national newspapers. Australian researchers also tracked television coverage and found a 20-fold increase in news about breast cancer, emphasizing the need for early detection.

Then they tallied the number of bookings for BreastScreen, a national program providing free mammograms to Australian women. They found that requests for the screenings rose 40% in the two-week period after the news. The study is in The Medical Journal of Australia in 2005.

In a telephone survey by U.S. researchers, at least one-fourth of those responding said seeing or hearing a celebrity talk about the need for a mammogram made them more likely to undergo the test. Researchers polled 500 people, 360 of them women 40 and older. They reported their findings in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2005.

After Sheryl Crow appeared on Larry King Live in August 2006, calls to the cancer institute at Cedars doubled compared with August 2005, says Keller. "Of course, there were most likely other factors, and this is strictly anecdotal, but impressive nonetheless," she tells WebMD.

What Is It About Star Power?

Your doctor or your mother might nag you to get a mammogram, and you put it off. So why do celebrities have such clout in motivating us?

"Because everything celebrities do is [viewed as] more interesting than what we do," says Stuart Fischoff, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology. "They get your attention.

"They become role models," he adds. "And they can become role models for how to take care of your body."

Seeing or hearing a familiar face discuss cancercancer, especially if the listener has been diagnosed with cancer, can be comforting, says Marisa Weiss, MD, president and founder of the web site breastcancer.org and a breast cancerbreast cancer oncologist at Lankenau Hospital in the Philadelphia area.

That's why she recruited about 90 celebrities to take part in her web site's Celebrity Talking Dictionary, where Alison Krauss, David Hyde Pierce, Dana Delany, Katie Couric, Ray Romano, and others take turns defining terms cancer patients are likely to encounter.

Not All Celebrities Are Created Equal

Choosing a celebrity to serve as a spokesperson for a breast cancer fund-raising event can be lucrative, but it's also potentially risky, says Andy Goldsmith, spokesman for the American Cancer Society.

Among the downsides? "Celebrities aren't always interested in delivering the message as we want it delivered, and their availability is extremely limited," Goldsmith tells WebMD.

A bigger risk: "Their character comes into play. If they make a very public mistake in some way, our message gets caught up in a celebrity's personal life," says Goldsmith.

As a hypothetical, he says, imagine a celebrity talking about the importance of cancer screening, then appearing on the cover of Cigar Aficionado magazine.

But when chosen carefully, celebrities can and do help, Goldsmith says. "We have benefited tremendously in our history from celebrities being able to jump on board with a public service campaign," he says, "... everyone from Johnny Carson, Harry Belafonte, Patti LaBelle -- even Eleanor Roosevelt."

WebMD Feature

Sources

Published Sept. 25, 2006.

SOURCES: Larson, R. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, May 4, 2005; vol 97: pp 693-5. Chapman, S. The Medical Journal of Australia, online Aug. 7, 2005; vol 183: pp 247-50. Lisa McEvoy, spokeswoman, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston. Janet Keller, spokeswoman, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles. Art Ochoa, JD, senior vice president of community relations, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles. Stuart Fischoff, PhD, professor emeritus, psychology, California State University Los Angeles. Elyse Walker, celebrity stylist, Los Angeles. Marisa Weiss, MD, president and founder of www.breastcancer.org; breast cancer oncologist, Lankenau Hospital, Philadelphia. Andy Goldsmith, spokesman, American Cancer Society, Atlanta. News release, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Entertainment Industry Foundation.

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