Communicating to cancer: The delicacy of marketing to potential patients.

Advertising cancer treatment options is a necessary action as each year globally, about 14 million people learn they have cancer, and 8 million people die from the disease, according to research done by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. With such a rapidly increasing target audience, it is obvious cancer care is big business and there are significant opportunities for unethical marketing practices by various segments of the industry.

“Cancer is a bad word,” said Randall Holcombe, Director of Clinical Cancer Affairs for Mount Sinai Health System. “It’s the disease that people fear most.” These comments were shared during an article by Lisa Marie Potter, Inside Science.

The duration of Potter’s article further advocated for strict marketing guidelines to be enforced for cancer care entities to follow in the best interest of the vulnerable parties involved, as she discussed the issue with Holcombe and also introduced the opinions of Trevor Hedberg, a PhD candidate at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who co-authored an article in 2013 about the ethics of marketing to vulnerable populations and was not involved in the report.

“It’s not inherently wrong to market to vulnerable populations,” said Hedberg. “Though vulnerable populations may be at risk of being harmed by immoral marketing campaigns, “you just have to hold yourself to a higher standard than you would to other clients,” says Hedberg.

Because the target population is especially vulnerable, it is essential that strict ethical guidelines are adopted and that appropriate oversight be put in place to ensure compliance (Holcombe, 2015).The primary stakeholders for marketing cancer care are pharmaceutical companies and large medical centers striving for increased market share. The target populations for marketing of cancer include practitioners as well as consumers. The latter group is especially vulnerable because of fears and anxiety related to their diagnosis (Holcombe, 2015).

Recommendations for cancer marketing include: ensuring fair and balanced promotion of cancer services, avoiding exaggeration of claims in the context of reputational marketing, providing data and statistics to back up direct and implied assertions whenever possible and defining eligible patient groups in the context of marketing for research.


Although, these recommendations are ideal for the audiences, how will cancer care entities meet these expectations and remain competitive? In an article by Neil Versel, MedCity News, these options are conversed. Here is an excerpt:

 Pharma companies are the “slowest of the slow” when it comes to changing their marketing strategy because they are so heavily regulated, Hashi said. But some are catching on quickly to the trend of online video; Hashi noted that Novartis and AstraZeneca in particular have reached out on social media more in the last 18 months. (This month, a longtime expert in pharma social media, Craig DeLarge, joined Takeda Pharmaceutical as the head of digital acceleration for emerging markets, with a focus on China, South Korea, Russia and Brazil.)

New apps such as Periscope and Meerkat that let people stream live video through their Twitter accounts, could change the market again. For example, Hashi said that a healthcare advertiser could share interesting content from a conference around the world in real time. “We haven’t seen a healthcare advertiser use this yet,” he said. But it’s probably coming.


As the bustling cancer care industry continues to grow, the means in which to advertise these developments will also, however it is unclear if the ability to regulate them will be able to keep up.


What are your thoughts?


Holcombe, R. F. (2015). The ethics of marketing cancer. Journal of Cancer Policy, 3, 1-2. doi:10.1016/j.jcpo.2014.11.001

Statement of Ethics. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Versal, N. (2015, May 18). From cancer to feet: The power of Twitter in healthcare – MedCity News. Retrieved from

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4 Responses to Communicating to cancer: The delicacy of marketing to potential patients.

  1. Leyla says:

    Hello Caliah!
    You have touched a very sensitive topic. I have been in a shoes of cancer patients’ relatives three times in my life. Two times with my mother and once with dad. Thanks God we overcomed all these successfully but I know from the first hands how sensitive to the advertisement of this kind people are in the period of fighting disease. I am 100% sure that this shouold be strictly regulated because each and every word and number eaither energizes people or ruins all positive thoughts they have about their future. These people are very sensitive and nothing could be said without back up and even real statistics or claims should be designed carefully. I have also worked as business development manager for one of the biggest private cancer centers in Turkey which was affiliated with Johns Hopkins Medicine and we have the most complicated cases across the country. But in spite of the reputation of course we were also promoting our services on the market and I know from personal experience that you have to keep the balance. Cancer patients look for the hope, which you can either give them or ruin. And it is big responsibility for communication people. Sometimes when you promise 70% of the positive result they hear it as 100% and that is where the challenge begins.

  2. Brittani says:

    I definitely agree that the marketing to such vulnerable parties should only be undertaken with the highest respect for ethical boundaries. If a person is desperate enough in searching for a solution, they might grasp at anything that presents itself as a glimmer of hope. For the unethical marketer, they could see this as an opportunity, unfortunately. The main problem definitely is, most of the time, no laws are being broken so you’re correct in that it is difficult to regulate.

    However, I think in order for effective solutions to occur, the screening process needs to be more ruthless in picking the project manager for such tasks. The organization needs to take more responsibility in who they choose because the meaning of the ad starts with the person with the idea.

  3. Destinee says:

    Hi Caliah,

    Wow! This is a really pertinent topic this week as we have learned about ethical marketing strategies. My only experience with seeing campaigns for cancer have been for companies like the ‘Cancer Treatment Centers of America’ or for ‘St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’

    In each instance, I do think these companies have ethically provided hope and information for not only patients as consumers but also their families. However, I do like that you’ve highlighted recommendations for cancer treatment marketing because any form of cancer is a serious battle.

    Your post has also gotten me thinking about other unethical pharmaceutical marketing that takes advantage of patients. A friend of mine from high school lost her sister not so long ago to a blood clot that was caused from birth control. Toward the end of a video that I am going to link the mom of my friend states the fact that her daughter’s NuvaRing prescription only warns against sexually transmitted infections but it doesn’t warn against death or blood clots which are also serious side effects.

    Watch at 3:00 mark.

    In marketing, we’ve learned that it can sometimes be difficult to determine what practices are and aren’t moral or ethical. When it comes to the life of a human being the lines can become even more blurred. On one hand you want your medical drug to sell and make a lot of money, but on the other you have to worry about the patients feelings, and the side effects of what you are selling.

    Again, great post!

    – Destinee Cordeiro

  4. Jessica says:

    I agree that certain topics in advertisement need to be regulated more than others especially those relating to vulnerable parties. Even with current regulations I think some advertisements may still cross the line of being unethical. I would suggest the advertisements need to state the reality of the situation as well, for example, the disclaimers need to be clear and at the forefront of the messaging. Disclaimers would include messages such as results not typical or results only determined by 15% of patients. It is tough to determine whether big pharmaceutical companies should be allowed to advertise to vulnerable parties or not because some hope is better than no hope, right?