Do your patients want that celebrity’s cancer treatment? Here's what you need to know.

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published February 7, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • When public figures talk about their experiences with cancer, patients can feel inspired—or misled.

  • Overly enthusiastic messaging that lacks specifics about treatment may cause some patients to set unrealistic expectations for what their treatment will look like.

Actress Shannen Doherty, 52, recently shared her experience with a “miracle” cancer treatment. The 90210 star shared last year that she was fighting stage 4 breast cancer and has been vocal about her condition. Though she never specified the therapy, mentioning such treatment has garnered a lot of attention.

When celebrities publicize their experiences with various diseases, such as cancer, patients with the same diagnosis can take their words to heart. Depending on the exact messaging used, this can have positive or negative impacts on doctors prescribing care.

Emad Ibrahim, MD, hematologist, oncologist, and Director of Cancer Care at Redlands Community Hospital in Redlands, CA, explains that celebrity messaging can be harmful if it causes patients to make unrealistic comparisons or seek “miraculous” cures.

“Hyperbolic statements, especially from celebrities, can be harmful by setting unrealistic expectations and causing frustration when outcomes do not match what is presented in the media,” Dr. Ibrahim says. “Oftentimes, these media presentations lack specifics and long-term outcomes, and it is the physician's duty to offer the evidence-based experience while maintaining hope.”

On the other hand, he says, it can be helpful if statements made by public figures elicit hope for people undergoing treatment and recovery.

“A more measured presentation of a positive outcome and new promising treatments can be helpful if done the right way,” Dr. Ibrahim says. “Positive outcomes in cancer treatment are not unusual and should always be mentioned and hoped for in the discussion between the physician and the cancer patient.”

Addressing vagueness 

When public figures discuss cancer treatments without mentioning specifics, they can leave room for people’s imaginations, rather than a doctor’s advice, to fill in the gaps.

“These lack specifics and are out of context. [They] tend to highlight only the positives,”  Dr. Ibrahim says. 

In addition to celebrities’ messaging, confusion can stem from misleading pharmaceutical ads, websites, media outlets, friends, or relatives, Dr. Ibrahim adds. 

“It is important to address the ‘hearsay’ or promise to research it if the physician has not heard it, and then [to] try to put it in context,” Dr. Ibrahim says. “This is an important step in building trust by not ignoring or ridiculing what was said, but [by] putting it in context and redirecting the discussion to the individual's needs.”

Building trust in the doctor-patient relationship is paramount, he adds.

Emphasize the importance of individualized treatment

Individualizing treatment can be crucial for best patient outcomes. Explaining the importance of this may encourage patients not to compare themselves to others and instead focus on their own recovery.

When treating a patient with cancer, Dr. Ibrahim says that he likes to go over individualized goals for the process to come. Goals include what the patient and doctor hope to achieve throughout the treatment and can range from relieving symptoms and slowing the progression of the disease to curing cancer and reaching remission, he adds.

These goals will vary from patient to patient—and from patient to celebrity, he says.

“Every cancer is different, and each individual with cancer is unique and may respond differently,” Dr. Ibrahim says. He adds that he seeks to provide patients with “a balance between hope and realistic expectations.”

Cancer can be a collective experience, too

Emphasizing the importance of individualized treatment does not take away from the fact that cancer can also be a collective experience, says Dr. Ibrahim. Other people’s journeys through treatment add to evidence-based medicine related to the disease and can contribute to pages of inspiring and hopeful stories to which other patients can look.

“Battling cancer is a difficult and emotional journey that involves the patient, their family, and loved ones, and the care providers, such as physicians and nurses,” Dr. Ibrahim says. “Building trust, tailoring treatments to each individual situation, and reassurance in the care provided, is very important.”

What this means for you

Talk to your patients about goals and expectations for treatment before you begin, and address any hearsay or misleading celebrity messaging.

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