The new year has barely started, but 2016 is already notable for very sad news: the recent deaths of musician David Bowie and actor Alan Rickman from cancer. Joining them on this sad list are Daniel Dion and Rene Angelil—the older brother and husband, respectively, of pop singer Celine Dion, both of whom passed away a week and a half ago from the same cause. And on January 18th, Glenn Frey, one of the founding members of The Eagles, died from complications related to rheumatoid arthritis.
Neither Bowie nor Rickman focused heavily on cancer awareness after their diagnoses, but the outpouring of grief may well have an effect on public knowledge about the disease. Interest in learning about diseases rises noticeably when a famous person is diagnosed—in fact, this was part of the reason why Angelina Jolie chose to write so publicly about her mastectomy in the New York Times a few years ago.
According to a letter to the editors of the British Medical Journal by researchers from CancerBACUP, cancer-related celebrity deaths have consistently lead to increased calls to their cancer information line. After Nancy Reagan chose to undergo a mastectomy in 1987, there was a 25% decrease in women who opted for breast-conserving surgeries. In the week after Paul McCartney’s wife, Linda, died from breast cancer, calls to the organization increased substantially, with 64% more calls specifically about breast cancer.
This effect isn’t specific to cancer.
A week after actress Natasha Richardson died from a skiing injury in 2009, there was a sharp increase in the number of emergency room visits to Montreal’s Children’s Hospital. Richardson had been skiing in Quebec, the capital of Montreal, so her death had been very heavily covered by local media.
Researchers compared the number of ER visits the week after her death to the week before. They also compared the average number of visits in the 10-week period immediately after Richardson’s accident to that same period from the previous 16 years. Like the British researchers, they believed that this high-profile and unexpected death would lead parents to be more cautious with their children.
The data confirmed their suspicions. They found a 60% increase in ER visits the week immediately after the accident compared to the week before—a statistically significant result. Equally striking was a 66% increase in ER visits compared to the 16-year average, with smaller increases in the hospitals in the greater Quebec region. Despite the number of increased visits, the number of severe head-related traumas diagnosed during this period remained consistent with past averages.