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Cancer patients are getting younger: let’s talk

New US cancer cases are expected to cross the 2m mark in 2024. And what’s worse, patients are getting younger. That puts communications under the spotlight, says WPP’s Wendy Lund

The communications and marketing industry is a valued participant in communicating how to live well, acquire healthy habits, know what to do when things go wrong, and sharing what the new landscape for cancer diagnostics and treatments looks like.

The unique skills of the communications and marketing profession have been honed to reach at-risk groups, in the spaces they inhabit and with the messages that will likely cause them to act. Communicators are at the fulcrum of the scientific/clinical world and consumers/patients.

We have more information than ever on which to act. Data from the American Cancer Society are throwing up new insights. While the US proportion of people under 50 diagnosed with cancer dropped from 15% to 12% (because of their shrinking representation in the general population), they were the only age group with an increase in overall cancer incidence between 1995 and 2020.

There are two further notable findings of the ACS’s US research. The first is that progress against cancer lags in communities of colour; and the second is that LGBTQ+ people face unique risks for developing cancer. Health equity must be a red thread through all the progress to come.

The global numbers also confirm progress is sorely needed, despite the leaps and bounds in achievement to date. According to the British Medical Journal, global incidence of early-onset cancer increased by 79.1% and the number of early-onset cancer deaths increased by 27.7% between 1990 and 2019.

How to communicate

When there is real purpose in the messaging, and there is direct, authoritative tone that serves to bring people together to act as a community, the power of marketing and communications is revealed. But, today, especially as the population affected skews younger, health brands must modify their marketing to be authentic in their messaging and open to engagement.

They must use people as role models and adopt highly snackable content. And they must not forget the caregiver – most likely the parent – who is probably terrified and shocked, and not sure how to move forward to support their child. It’s supposed to be the opposite way around.

Thankfully, we have at our disposal vast and well-established digital platforms through which we have become accustomed to communicating with audiences. We also know where to find different ‘tribes’ and engage with them on their terms. Much has been said about Gen Z and their preferred hunting grounds for information. But we have also studied Gen X and, in truth, all the other demographics. We have also studied ‘values’ as a means of accessing like-minded groups. And we have studied women and what resonates with them through the Health On Her Terms study.

Much of this research draws on behavioural science. We know what causes people to act because we, at WPP, have studied it and implemented the findings in our marketing on behalf of brands. This is what underpins everything we do. And, of course, it is all informed by data.

So, what does all this mean for marketing, whether that messaging is coming from pharma, biotech, clinicians, governments or supra national organisations, all working towards a safer, healthier world – a world where health equity must be front of mind and there must be access to care for all.

Pharma – scientists as our influencers

Scientists are our superheroes when it comes to cancer. Gone are the days when scientists laboured silently in labs without windows. Today, scientists from pharma and biotech are on social media, talking direct to consumers and translating the science to drive inspiration and hope. We have been invited in and those lonely labs are a thing of the past.

Today, science is vibrant and full of promise. It’s the source of solutions and optimism. From personalised medicine to the drive towards social inclusion in medical trials to the use of AI across the scientific spectrum, scientists are talking about it all.

For pharma and biotech brands, this brings the compelling opportunity to demonstrate their credentials by harnessing the science and the scientists. In many ways, health is now embedded in culture. Consumers have become accustomed to talking about scientific concepts that would have been a foreign language years ago. Who would have thought ‘coronavirus’ would be a top search term for so many months? But it was.

Consumers want to know how to live well, be hopeful if they become unwell, learn what is happening to their bodies and minds, and understand what treatment and therapies will achieve that. The opportunities here for pharma and biotech marketing are immense.

Clinicians as communicators

For so many of us, the clinical world was traditionally one we shied away from. What happened inside hospitals, clinics, places for rest and recuperation, and where we go to monitor recovery was a mystery.

That is no longer the case. Again, clinicians are talking about wellness, prevention and living better. Their messaging is not dark and frightening; it is much more empowering than that. They have available to them the latest health monitoring tools, the latest med-tech devices, assisted living products and there is so much more to come.

Clinicians operate between the science and the individual. They have immeasurable contact with us all and they have the power to communicate the modern approach to living – and living well.

Savvy brands are working alongside clinicians to demonstrate what the future of medicine looks like. By being inclusive and reaching all communities, the bleakness becomes less, well, bleak.

Beyond the individual

We have all been unlucky enough to see what happens when the world is impacted by pandemic. But we have also been fortunate to see what’s possible when the world comes together through the scientific community, NGOs, health authorities, the pharma industry and the power of everyday people to communicate across large swathes of the global population.

We also know what follows when the health community comes together with the people, and rapidly makes a step change in outcomes. But it requires responsible people-centric messaging that informs and reveals – but does not alarm.

In the end, we in the communications and marketing industry are in a unique position to make a difference, transform health and health equity, and ensure healthcare education and advocacy for all.

Wendy Lund

Chief Client Officer, Health@WPP

published on

20 February 2024



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