"I am reasonably convinced that this effect happened," says Dr. Tim Byers, vice chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine and Biometrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver. "Celebrity events such as this have had similar effects in the past. Following the Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller breast cancer diagnoses, for example, there were documented surges in mammography and breast cancer diagnosis rates in the U.S."
Other health advocates concur. "In the past, certainly when Betty Ford got breast cancer, there was a spike in women getting mammograms," says Raphael.
"As long as you have the right celebrity for the right cause, it can make a difference," she adds, citing Dallas star Hagman's past chairmanship of the Great American Smoke-Out. "The key is that the person has to have a connection to the cancer."
Phone Lines, Web Sites Swamped
In another example, when CBS used the sitcom Murphy Brown to deal with breast cancer, one organization, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, saw it as an opportunity to raise awareness of the disease.
During one episode, the show's star, Candice Bergen, did a live public service announcement with the founder of the Komen Foundation. That prompted more than 1,100 women to call the foundation's help line that evening to ask about breast-cancer screening, says foundation spokeswoman Kristin Kelly. Call volume before the episode was about 75 to 100 calls per day.
And when actress Terri Garr announced her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis in 2002, the Web site for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society was flooded with hits. Celebrity spokesmanship, says spokesman Arney Rosenblat, "puts a face on the disease [and promote the idea] anyone is vulnerable."
Even when the evidence on celebrity involvement is anecdotal, the influence seems apparent. "Famous people have a big impact on cancer awareness," argues Blum. "[They are] able to generate both awareness and actual action."