Generally speaking, the earlier a cancer is discovered, the more likely it is to respond to treatment. Screening tests are designed to detect cancer in its infancy, prior to the development of symptoms. Screening for cancer can save lives. An example of this is the Pap test , which is used to prevent cervical cancer. The Pap test has largely been responsible for the 70% to 80% decline in death due to cervical cancer over the past decades.

Not everyone should be screened for every cancer, however. Most people who are screened do not have cancer and will never develop that cancer in the future. For every patient who benefits from a screening test, many more do not, and some of these patients are actually harmed by false positive results. Each screening test, has guidelines for who should be screened and when—although there isn’t always agreement among medical professionals on these recommendations.

People hear about cancer screening from a variety of sources, including doctors, family, friends, and public health campaigns. Celebrities have increasingly joined the ranks of vocal advocates for cancer screening, oftentimes relaying their own personal experiences. A study published in the May 4, 2005 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute looked at the impact of celebrity endorsements of cancer screenings—specifically, whether people had seen or heard celebrity endorsements, and if the endorsements influenced their decision to have a cancer screening test done.

About the Study

The study used random-digit dialing to contact households in the continental US. Telephone interviews were conducted with 360 women and 140 men who had no history of cancer. Researchers asked participants if they had seen or heard celebrity endorsements for screening mammography (to detect breast cancer ), prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing (to detect prostate cancer ), or sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy (to detect colorectal cancer or polyps). The interviewers asked whether respondents had seen or heard celebrities such as:

  • Rosie O’Donnell and Nancy Reagan talk about getting mammograms?
  • Norman Schwarzkopf talk about getting PSA tests?
  • Katie Couric talk about getting a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy?

If participants had encountered celebrity endorsements for screening tests, the interviews determined to what extent they were influenced by the endorsements.

The researchers restricted the analysis to respondents who, according to most current guidelines, were most likely to be screened by that test. Mammography data, therefore, was collected from interviews with women aged 40 years or older, PSA testing data from men aged 50 years or older, and sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy data from men and women aged 50 years or older.

The Findings

For screening mammography, 73% of women said that they had seen or heard a celebrity endorsement. Of these women, 25% reported that it made them more likely to undergo the test.

Almost two-thirds of men (63%) had seen or heard a celebrity endorsement for PSA testing and 31% who had seen the endorsement said it made them more likely to undergo the test.

Of the adults aged 50 and older, 52% had seen or heard a celebrity endorsement for sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. Of these adults, 37% reported that it made them more likely to undergo a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy.

Overall, the researchers found that more than one-half of adults surveyed had seen or heard celebrity endorsements of cancer screening tests, and more than one-fourth of these adults felt that it made them more likely to undergo the promoted screening test.

How Does This Affect You?

The study’s results show that celebrities can have a significant impact on the public’s perception of cancer screening. The authors of the study note that, on balance, this influence is good because early detection of cancer can be effective at reducing cancer mortality. However, the harmful effects of screening should not be taken lightly, and it is impossible to know how many people influenced by overly zealous celebrity endorsements have actually been harmed by their advice.

Celebrity endorsements of cancer screening can be an effective method for carrying a message to the public about a serious disease. But you should not have a screening test simply because a celebrity says you should. Instead, it is a decision made between you and your doctor, based on your personal medical history and the best available evidence weighing benefits against risks.

The following are cancer screening guidelines agreed upon by most authorities:

  • For breast cancer: most women should have a mammogram every 1-2 years beginning at age 40
  • For colorectal cancer: most adults should either have a flexible sigmoidoscopy or a full colonoscopy every 10 years beginning at age 50.
  • For prostate cancer: PSA screening remains controversial. Some authorities feel all men should begin annual screening at age 50.
  • Anyone with a family history of cancer or other serious risks factor(s) should begin screening earlier and have it more often.