Memorial Video Helps U.K. Teen Raise Funds

A tribute to a mother who died from cervical cancer has gone viral on YouTube.ABC News
A tribute to a mother who died from cervical cancer has gone viral on YouTube.

Sixteen-year-old Sarah Phillips has raised more than $75,000 for cervical cancer research in the past 10 days, just by posting a YouTube video.

A powerfully touching video tribute to Sarah's mother, Debbie, who recently died of the cancer, went viral within days of being posted, making headlines in the United Kingdom and the United States.

After battling cervical cancer for four years, Sarah's mother succumbed to the disease in the early morning hours of Feb. 11. She was 48.

VIDEO: A tribute to a mother who died from cervical cancer has become popular on YouTube.Play
Video Tribute to Dying Mom Is a Viral Hit

A few hours before her mother's, Sarah said her final goodbye in their west London home by singing her "Autumn" by Paolo Nutini, holding up her cell phone to record the tribute because she knew she would want to play it at her mother's funeral, Sarah said.

The recording was then put to music by family friend Charlie Mole and added as the soundtrack to a video collage of family movies that played at the funeral Feb. 25.

Hoping her mother's story could be used to make a difference for others battling cervical cancer, Sarah posted the tribute on YouTube Mar. 2, urging viewers to donate to the Debbie Phillips Cervical Cancer Research Fund, which was created by the family in memorial to their beloved mother and wife.


But Sarah had no idea the video would prove so effective, she said.

"We circulated it around to a lot of people, but it was a total surprise how many hits it got," Sarah said.

Sarah's father, Mark Phillips, said,"It's really developed a life of it's own."

The growing tide of donations will go to the University College London's Cancer Institute Research Trust through Debbie Phillips' fund.

Viral Campaigns for a Cause

The incredible success of the video is a testament not only to the power of viral videos on the Internet, but to the potential this kind of social media may have for philanthropy.

From Obama's presidential campaign to the Oakland Ballet, "everyone is in love with video" as an effective way to share information, reach out, advertise, and in perhaps video's most commendable role, raise funds for a worthy cause, nonprofit marketing expert Nancy Schwartz said.

Whether engaging viewers with humor or with an "emotionally compelling" story such as Debbie Phillips', Shwartz said, the videos themselves can serve as messengers for an organization or movement and, as such, can become a powerful tool for awareness and involvement.

But other organizations, such as the National Cervical Cancer Coalition and the American Cancer Society, have posted numerous videos on YouTube, and they almost never get the kind of traffic that Sarah's video has picked up in a matter of days, said Alan Kaye, chairmen and co-founder of the National Cervical Cancer Coalition.

"We've had videos on YouTube forever and never got that many hits," Kaye said.

"Forever, [philanthropic] organizations have been talking about their issues in terms of abstract concepts and statistics, but it's been proven that people connect much more easily with the story of one person," Schwartz said.

"That imagery of individuals is so powerful and authentic. It's a huge improvement over more traditional organizational communication.

"This particualrly video is so emotionally compelling, you really feel like you get a sense for Debbie and the love her family feels. It's sad, but it engages you to want to help. It's really inspirational."

Sarah said part of the video's attraction is that "it's so unusual.

"There's not that many opportunities for people to record something in that type of situation. Also, the mother-to-daughter thing, I think it just struck a nerve with people," she said.

Kaye of the National Cervical Cancer Coalition said he hoped the group's new video, "Relationships Matter," will do as well as Sarah's in spreading awarenss for cervical cancer. The video is to go up on its Web site and YouTube in three weeks and will draw on the personal stories of more than 100 cervical cancer victims amassed at the Coalition's past three conferences.

Cervical Cancer Awareness

More than 4,000 U.S. women died from cervical cancer in 2009 and 11,000 more were diagnosed with the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Most cervical cancer is caused by a sexually transmitted viral infection, human papillomavirus (HPV). Men and women can become infected but women can develop cervical cancer.

"Cervical cancer tends to be the step child of cancers when it comes to outreach, awareness and education," Kaye said, partially because of the stigma of being a "sexually transmitted" form of cancer.

But HPV is not uncommon, he said. At least 50 percent of sexually active men and women will get the virus at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some research, Kaye said, puts the number as high as 80 percent of Americans by age 50.

Ironically, he said, there are advantages to being a virally-caused cancer.

"It's a preventable cancer," Kaye said. "Through the HPV vaccine, regular pap-smear testing, and HPV testing," the cancer can be prevented by preventing HPV infection, he said. "This can be a real win on cancer. How amazing to stop a cancer before it occurs."

Already, increased awareness and more regular pap testing in women has reduced cervical cancer rates in the United States by 70 percent since the mid-1960s, Kaye said, "but thousands of people continue to die from it every year."

For a small percentage of patients, however, including Debbie Phillips, cervical cancer does not spring from an HPV infection, Phillips said, which makes it more difficult to treat.

What's more, research on treatments for this kind of cancer, and for cervical cancer in general, was poorly lacking when Phillips was sick, he said.

This is what drove the Phillips family to create her cervical cancer research fund, a plan they discussed while she was still alive and put into effect three weeks ago.

"The outcome for those with cervical is so poor," Sarah said, so, "I really hope we can raise a lot of money for more research."

The fund has raised so much money already that the University College London has assigned a special research team to work with the funds. Phillips met with the team Friday to discuss how the money will be used to forward our understanding of cervical cancer and treatment options.

"They have some very interesting ideas on where we can target the research and they're providing us with lots of good support," he says. "It was a very good meeting -- very encouraging."