The flood of breast cancer publicity that followed in the wake of Kylie Minogue’s diagnosis last year came to be known as “the Kylie effect” — so will Janette Howard’s announcement do the same for the cervical cancer cause?

“I hope that older women can perhaps relate to Janette,” Kate Broun from PapScreen Victoria, who issued a press release on the back of Mrs Howard’s revelation, told Crikey. “Women see someone who has a high public profile and realise it can happen to them. It can raise the profile of the disease, and it also serves as a reminder to get tested.”

So how valuable is it to the cause when a celebrity goes public with their illness? According to a study in the Medical Journal of Australia, as a result of Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer diagnosis there was a 20-fold increase in the news coverage of breast cancer on Australian TV.

The study found a 101% increase in bookings for women in the eligible age group for the BreastScreen programme — 40 to 69 — who hadn’t been screened before. And six weeks after the publicity, mammogram bookings remained nearly 40% up in previously unscreened women.

So could Janette have the same kind of effect? “She’s got cache with some women in the community so Janette Howard’s gesture I think is very important …” Professor Simon Chapman from the University of Sydney, and author of the Kylie study, told Crikey.

A sick celebrity resonates much more than a high profile awareness campaign because “celebrities by definition are newsworthy and the difficulty in a lot of health promotion work is that people are talking faceless statistics,” Chapman says. “When you can put a real person with a known biography around a story it can have very profound effects.”

And for a figure as intensively private as Janette Howard, it must have been a big decision to finally reveal the nature of her illness, knowing that she’d instantly become a poster child for the disease. “Part of the nature of celebrities being public property is when they get ill their life passages become our life passages,” says Chapman,”and health promotions try to grab hold of a celebrity to give extra legs to the issue …”

And there are many other examples of this phenomenon, says Chapman. LA Lakers player Magic Johnson’s revelation that he had HIV raised awareness of the illness amongst heterosexual males, Princess Diana’s bulimia did wonders for people suffering from eating disorders and even Shane Warne’s less than successful bid to quit smoking helped the anti smoking cause.

But there are drawbacks to jumping on the celebrity bandwagon, says Chapman. “Several years ago Nicole Kidman came out wearing a pink ribbon to raise breast cancer awareness, but she was also photographed shortly after smoking cigarettes at a press conference … the downside of celebrity endorsement is that confusing messages are sent out.”

But the net effect of celebrity sickness is positive, and going public can prove therapeutic for the high profile patient, too. Helping to heal the community can be “a positive part to aiding recovery,” says Chapman. 

Peter Fray

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