When a Cancer Billboard Is Offensive

When a Cancer Billboard Is Offensive

Update:  This billboard was taken down shortly after this post was widely shared as criticism mounted. Our collective voices matter! Still, the question remains. Why was it so poorly thought out and put up in the first place? Messaging matters.

Recently on a pleasant Saturday outing, Dear Hubby and I were driving along and talking rather mindlessly, probably about our tax return, since we were on our way to do tax stuff, when out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a certain billboard along the highway we were on. I did a double take and immediately started stewing.

At first I wasn’t even sure I had read the words on the billboard quite right. They seemed too outlandish, even for Cancerland.

This is what they said:

She never gave up. So her cancer did.

I could not believe there could be such an insensitive message on a huge billboard along a major roadway. And I couldn’t help but notice that the image chosen to pair with the message was one of a smiling young woman with lovely long hair no less.

Do you think it was a coincidence they didn’t put a man up there, or a bald woman who’s doing chemo?

I don’t.

At least they didn’t single out breast cancer. No, this was a generic cancer ad.

I was surprised Dear Hubby even noticed the billboard; after all, he was driving. But he did, and his immediate reaction was to look over at me and wait. Yeah, I guess he knows me pretty well. He may not read my blog, but he has been listening! He knew I’d be riled up.

He was right.

I turned to him and the first words out of my mouth were, “That is total bullshit. That kind of crap really pisses me off.”

“Well, I guess you can just will cancer away,” he said sarcastically.

“Yeah, I guess so.” I answered.

We proceeded along and finished our business with the tax guy. On our way home, Dear Hubby asked, “Well, do you want to pull over a take a picture of that sign?”

I guess he knows me even better than I thought.

“Sure!” I said.

He, of course, remembered exactly where the sign was. I did not. I can’t remember stuff like that…

We turned around and pulled over to the side of the road. It was a busy highway, so I didn’t get out of the car (hence my blurry photo), but just rolled down my window. And when I did, I became even more irate because then I could see who the sponsor of this billboard advertisement was. It was – Mayo Clinic Health Systems – my health care system!

More stewing by me, about which I’ll spare you the details.

Why was this whole deal so upsetting to me?

Because such a simplistic message is hurtful, yes, offensive to families like mine who have witnessed a loved one die from metastatic cancer. My mother did not die because she gave up or didn’t try hard enough. And her effort did not determine if her cancer would “give up” or not. Friends of mine who have died from cancer have not died because they gave up either.

People who die from cancer do not die because they give up or don’t try hard enough.

The kind of messaging on that billboard is very offensive to families like mine and I can’t even imagine how offensive it must be to those driving by in their cars who at that very moment are dealing with metastatic disease.

How would you like to hear a message like this under such circumstances?

In addition to being offensive, billboard messages such as this are potentially harmful because they are spewing false information, even though I know the intentions are good.

But the fact remains; such a message insinuates that somehow the cancer patient will survive if only she tries hard enough.

Or as Dear Hubby said, “If only the patient works hard enough at willing it away.”

Perhaps most importantly, billboards like this are irresponsible because of whose name is on there. Mayo Clinic is a world renowned facility. Mayo Clinic Health Systems is no small potatoes.

This is about integrity (it usually is), cancer truth telling and so much more.

Mayo Clinic Health Systems, you can do better than this. 

Do you think I overreacted?

Do you think such a billboard is encouraging or harmful?

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When a #Cancer Ad Is Offensive #breastcancer #advertising #ads #advocacy #wordsmatter

161 thoughts to “When a Cancer Billboard Is Offensive”

  1. Nancy, You did not overreact at all, when I saw the post about the billboard the first thing I thought of was my sister who we lost 3 months ago to metastatic breast cancer. She fought until her last breath and to think that they were saying that if she just fought a little more she would have survived.This billboard made my blood boil, I am so happy to hear that they took it down. Thank you for bringing this subject to light. 🙂

    1. Karen, I’m sorry to hear about your dear sister. And yes, things like this make my blood boil too. I’ve been told the billboard will come down within the next two weeks or so. Thank you for sharing about your sister. Again, I’m sorry.

  2. I’m on the fence about this. I am a stage IV breast cancer survivor and I interpreted the sign to mean that She never gave up (so the cancer did) to mean that she never gave up by fighting, injecting poison into your body to kill the cancer, and the cancer gave up because it couldn’t keep up. Of course this is all a matter of perception. I also see your point of view on this as well. They could have said something like “She fought and won!” Either way someone obviously writing the copy left themselves open to a very negative reaction. Kudos for rallying to take it down!

    1. Leslie, I realize not everyone sees it the same way I do. To me the idea of cancer giving up is flawed in the first place. You’re right, it’s all about perception and I wrote about mine. It seems I wasn’t alone. Thanks for sharing your view on this. And thanks for the kudos.

  3. Nancy you were right in your reaction!! And your steps to correct should be applauded. I take offense to the AI statement found everywhere of “Knowing that this side effect might indicate a reduced risk of the cancer coming back may help some women stick with treatment despite the side effects.” ie: translated in my mind as if you really want to fight you’ll put up with the minimal se. I have stopped arimidex because being a sick zombie to me is worse than any recurrence of cancer. But MO has called me in for council. We’ll see what is offered for the next poison pill option. And I elliptical 2.5-3.0 miles a day just for my mental health, because it doesn’t impact the se of AI. Thanks for your blog, it was a prayer answered for me before the MO meeting!

    1. I thought I was the only one with issues with arimidex. Just really bad joint pain.Rene, how long have you been on it?

    2. Rene, I take issue with such statements about SE’s too. I think your translation is pretty accurate. I realize there are risks and benefits and each of us must choose and decide what’s best for us individually. I don’t think women (or men) should be sent on their way and more less told to grin and bear it. Have you tried one of the other AIs? That’s what I did. Good luck at your meeting and thanks for commenting.

    3. Leslie I’ve only taken it for 33 days. I’ve documented by week each event/symptom. I am surgical menopause 25 years ago, over 60. When I googled arimidex&aromisin I happened on this website and one of “muscle builders” and their comments (yes men are taking aromisin to bulk up) it gave me interest to dig further. So much info in so many places, no clearinghouse or consensus…. 🙁 We only have each other, thank God many are willing to post and Nancy, bless her, is the moderator.

      1. No they take it to cut estrogen excess brought in by steroid use which causes excess estrogen production which cause bitch tots to grow in men.

  4. My brief, initial thought was “the cancer gave up because of the treatment she received at the hospital where she was treated.” Then, I got to thinking, “what the???” As if one can wish away or will away cancer. (Although an awful lot of women I know put “everything in God’s hands.”)

    Anyway, I appreciate the comments and different perspectives. As someone who has worked in public affairs and marketing at a large city hospital (not that one!) for 13 years, I can tell you with some confidence that the marketing folks were looking at this from promoting the hospital’s services and it was not meant to be offensive or insensitive. They just did a terrible job with their focus groups — if they used any.

    What was the outcome?

    I am a 13+ year survivor of metastatic ovarian cancer, and I lost my mother to metastatic ovarian cancer.

    1. Anna Marie, I agree with you completely. This billboard was, and still is, all about marketing/promoting the hospital as a business. This is fine, but more thought needs to go into such ads IMO. I don’t know if they used focus groups or not. I did invite MCHS to comment, but they did not respond. Perspectives are varied and it’s impossible to please everyone, but this billboard was was offensive to me, hence the post. MCHS did swap it out. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  5. I personally think you are totally off base for a number of reasons.

    First, I saw this link on Facebook shared by a woman named Cheryl Hartly. Ms Hartly is currently battling stage 4 cancer that has spread through out nearly her whole body and is starting to win the fight against all odds. Her comment was “put me on this bill board some day”. If a woman who was given less then a 5% chance of surviving a year is encouraged by this, then I too shall be.

    Second, and this is the one that will probably upset you, why can you not will cancer away? The potential of the human body is limitless, hindered only by what the mind has already decided you can not do. I am supposed to be in a wheel chair, I run 30 miles a week. I am scarred from head to toe, yet always get back up. I refuse to accept every time a doctor has told me what I will never do again or how handicapped I will be. I am bigger, stronger, faster, and better than any limitations. Everyone else can be too. Never accept defeat, in anything, ever! Be stronger then your afflictions and utilize the great power that your body possesses.

    1. Smitty,
      As a stage 4 Breast cancer patient, I find your post so disturbing. Stage 4 Breast cancer kills 98-99% of its victims. Those are the facts. It kills people who do chemo, don’t do chemo, pray, hope, wish, and dream fervently of escaping a certain death and vastly shortened life span. I’m 48, and I won’t live to see my future grandchildren. Maybe it’s because I’m brainwashed, right?

      Why do people insist on minimizing the dreadful outcome of this disease? I just don’t understand. It’s offensive.

      1. By the statement that you won’t live to see your future grand children, you have already admitted defeat. Your mind has conceded that your body won’t win. Your mind is the only thing that holds back what your body can do, and it will hold you back at every turn. You are stronger than your mind and you are stronger than your cancer, do not let your mind decide otherwise

      2. Fed Up, I hear you. I get fed up sometimes too. I was offended by this billboard (they did swap it out) and had to write about it. I just had to. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    2. Smitty, Your comment doesn’t upset me. I always welcome respectful discussion. I don’t think I was totally off base. I stand by my post. And MCHS did swap out the sign as they recognized their mistake. Mind does matter of course, but I don’t agree with your assumption that cancer can be willed away. Thank you for sharing your views on this.

    3. Smitty, good luck with “willing” your, or any other person’s cancer away… I guess when you see a loved one die of it, it will just mean they were weak and therefore better off gone from your precious gene pool.

    4. I do not know you nor judge you, but my precious 16 year old was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at age 14….he endured almost 50 chemo treatments, 2 amputations, 39 radiation treatments, and participated in 2 clinical trials at MD Anderson. He stated even against all odds that he would fight until he died or fight until he was cured, but he would NEVER quit fighting. Tumors, too many to count in his lungs, snuffed the life out of him. My son had the will of steel….and never one day had a pity party….so if anyone could just “will” this wretched disease away, it would have been him. I do so hope that you never have to face the reality that my son faced….and that you don’t choose to judge those people battling cancer because they are still battling….or because they died due to the disease.

    5. Wait till you get it and then ask those questions. Why can’t you will it away?? Because you can’t. Plain and simple no matter how much you might like to

  6. I lost a friend at the age of 32. She had a three-year-old boy and a loving supportive husband. She never once quit fighting. She never once stopped believing she’d survive. There is no way she “gave up”, on her family or her friends. The sad reality is that the poison they use to kill the cancer also poisons and kills the patient, and causes cancer itself. Some bodies are too overcome with cancer and cancer treatment poisoning to survive.

    1. Trish, I am sorry to hear about your friend and no, of course, she did not give up. People still die from cancer and it’s not because they didn’t try hard enough or gave up. This is reality. Thank you for chiming in on this.

      1. I totally agree with your sentiment, and don’t think you over-reacted. People don’t die from cancer because they give up. In my friend’s case, she didn’t give up, but neither did the cancer or the poisoning of the treatment.

  7. It is worded poorly but they are trying to send a positive message that they are trying to battle cancer and that there is still hope after being diagnosed. I have lost family members and friends to cancer so I understand what you are upset about but no where did they say that people that died from cancer gave up ……it’s all in your perspective and how you read it. Would you have been less offended if they had a billboard with a woman with no hair that said “She fought like hell, but in the end Cancer took her life.” ? I think you are reading too much into what they are trying to say though as I said I agree it is poorly worded.

    1. Adam, “It is worded poorly” – that was the problem. And words matter. I agree it’s all about perspectives, but to me the billboard was offensive and that’s why I wrote the post. This is one purpose of my blog, to share my viewpoints. MCHS read my post, read all the tweets, emails and such and decided to swap out the sign. The outcry was substantial enough for them to take swift action. How things are worded on a huge billboard on a busy roadway matters a great deal, especially when sponsored by a major player in healthcare delivery. My hope is that more thought will be put into future ad campaigns. Thanks for sharing your thought.

  8. Nancy, no, you did not overreact. It’s the same old message of “just stay positive”…as if, if you fight hard enough you won’t die. In my seven years so far of surviving MBC, I have seen many strong women who had plenty of reasons to fight and live have their lives taken from them by this stupid beast of a disease. As to Smitty, he’s obviously never had cancer. If you have, you don’t say things like your mind can cure your body of cancer. I agree, it absolutely matters what you think. But modern medicine added to the correct thoughts is what I am going with….

    1. Sue, Thank you for your well thought-out comment. That whole just stay positive message is inaccurate and no, this does not mean you and I are negative people. We are realists. I’m with you. Thank you for taking time to comment.

  9. As a women who had rare sarcoma carcinoma breast cancer twice back to back, did chemo twice, radiation, surgeries , lymph nodes removed , scarring all over my chest ( I opted not to have plastic surgery for a new left breast – if it comes back I want to know) Anyway, I have to say is that I AM OFFENDED by this conversation. Every person who gets cancer goes through it differently – no cancer is the same, no human fighting it is the same, and no outcome is the same. I feel like you all are talking on my behalf without my opinion or input with your comments on what is offensive to me as a cancer survivor – or not – This offends me !! I’m sorry that some of you have lost loved ones. While fighting my own cancer, I lost a nephew and 2 co-workers/friends to it and dealt with “why me” guilt. I fought my own battle while 3 close friends fought their own. Listen, when I came out at the end of hell fire, I was just happy I did and I don’t look back, or feel anger. Yes, it would have been nice if the billboard had a man, or a women who was bald -hell I was bald and going to work for two straight years – but please do not talk about my battle like you know it, and please do not be offended on my behalf unless I ask you to be. I have a different view on what is important in life..and trust me people – a Billboard isn’t it ! All of this time and efforts spent on a Billboard and yet…Children Are Still Hungry all over the World…now THAT pisses me off ! I don’t want responses of why you are offended…don’t need them…not interested. Sanctimonious much ? – you betcha – because I beat cancer’s butt -twice – and I will say it loud & clear..so take a picture of me, jumping for joy while my now grown back hair flies in the wind (do we know if the women isn’t a survivor? ) Cancer does make me mad, so does Racism & Racial Disparities, Hunger, Apathy about Climate Change, Police Violence – these all make my blood boil and I am involved in these issues – but this Billboard ?? meh

  10. You are absolutely not wrong. I live in Tampa. I just turned 29 this week. I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer November 2013 at the age of 28 and I was treated by Florida Cancer Specialists for my oncology. I have seen a very disturbing billboard in the past throughout Tampa by Moffitt Cancer Center which is well known. Their billboard said “Your best chance at beating cancer”. So what are they trying to say? Because I do not go to them I will die from cancer or will not have the same capability to get good treatment elsewhere? That really got under my skin and made me so mad every single time I saw it.

    1. Rachel, I am sorry about your diagnosis. I understand why the billboard message you mentioned disturbed you. It is rather insensitive to people who treat elsewhere isn’t it? Some of these ads should be better thought-out and if we don’t speak out about poor ones, how will they ever improve? Good luck with things. Hope you’re doing okay now. Thank you for chiming in on this conversation.

  11. First read: makes no sense.
    Second read: What are they trying to say?
    Third read: Why did the cancer give up?
    Fourth read: I think I got it.
    Fifth read: Implication is this, because of advanced treatment from one who wanted to fight hard, the cancer lost!

    Having lost many loved ones, I feel the pain you feel. some treatments work – my now 13 year old god son survived leukemia, first diagnosed when he was 5. His mother survived a cancer bout 4 years ago.

    Message is too complicated for a billboard. Hurtful would not be felling I have for this, but weird.
    (Incidentally, the add with this blog is for another cancer center.)

    1. Dr Bob, Thanks for sharing your perspective on the billboard. I’m glad your god son and his mother are doing alright now. Messaging is so important isn’t it? Words we choose do matter, especially on gigantic billboards sponsored by major players in healthcare delivery.

  12. You did not overreact at all. I could not completely agree more with this being offensive. Every message out there having to do with “beating” cancer, I find to be offensive. It totally implies that those who have died from cancer are losers. How can not more people see this? I am actually astonished that it is so difficult for me to find more people out there speaking on this like you are. So for that, I thank you for your words and I hope more can be put out there as well.

  13. I agree with Smitty. You women have Totally over reacted. And no I don’t find the billboard offensive or overtly insensitive. I found it encouraging. Cancer is curable without chemo. You all just fail to look at the alternatives. Dr. Bryzynski has been treating cancer patients in Texas for over 40 yrs. and there are others. You choose chemo, because that is what your insurance will pay for. Ppl mistreat their bodies and then cry for treatment. There is a reason you develop cancer in your body. Instead of being angry you should focus on finding what caused you to be ill in the first place and then get the appropriate treatment, and chemo doesn’t qualify as treatment.

    1. Hi Carmel,

      …I can only assume you have no personal experience living with cancer! I am also assuming you’re not a medical doctor, never mind a qualified oncologist.

      More than billboards, it’s people like you who are seriously offensive!!

      You are free to believe in whatever magic you choose to, but to come here and lecture us, who have to deal with this every day of our lives, about how it is our own fault that we have cancer in the first place and chemo doesn’t count is the height of insensitivity!!

      I hope when the time comes that you or one of your loved ones gets affected by cancer, you will have the conviction of your glib words to carry on with methods of dubious repute in the face of certain death! – Good luck with that!

    2. I realize this post is rather old now, but looking at the date, it was shortly after my diagnosis and almost to the day I consulted an MO about what chemo regimen I would almost certainly need. You have written something very offensive and incredibly insensitive. Everyone has the right to choose how they deal with this crappy disease – if you wish to state something positive about how YOU dealt with it, and why that worked for YOU, but all means… it might help someone. But this kind of talk is mean and it sounds like stuff thrown around by many who have not had to deal with illness or had to making serious treatment decisions.

  14. I agree with INSA, Comments like Carmel’s upset me far more than the message on the billboard. Uninformed and totally incorrect. (That said, I agree also with the sentiments about the billboard.)
    The mainstream medical world has a great interest in treating – and curing – cancer, as well as discovering the actual causes. Many, many people diagnosed with cancer previously led very healthy lifestyles – and they still got cancer! One day, we might definitively know what causes breast cancer – but we are not there yet.
    I believe I am still here today 11+ years later because of the “miraculous” treatments for my stage III breast cancer – like surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, Herceptin and aromatase inhibitors. My grandmother – who was diagnosed at nearly the same age I was, was not so lucky 60 years ago – she died within a few years, after the only treatment available back then – mastectomy.

  15. Celebrating 21 years cancer free this March 28th – six months of chemotherapy for Stage II breast cancer in 1995. Chemotherapy is important in my way of thinking. I did not lose any of my long blonde hair until month five – so sometimes you may “look” okay while going through treatments. Diagnosis saved my life – a radiologist had missed the cancer twice – while another doctor recommended a biopsy. Twenty-five lymph nodes later, cancer free, and a gluteal flap done during a total of 16 hours of surgery I actually “walked” a mile of the Boston Marathon course after 8 days in the hospital. I was missing the marathon for the first time in ten years – faithfully taking care of my health. I feel no one should ever think they caused their cancer through life style habits – I was doing everything to be healthy with no history of cancer in my family – it happens! Go to Stowe Days of Hope and register for a great weekend this April – in Vermont – I will be showing everyone how to paint – always love writing grants for cancer survivor art worshops – and allowing that time painting to be a reprieve from the reality of treatment. Billboard? Don’t get stressed over advertising – it’s a billboard advertising a business.

  16. She never gave up so her cancer did…Am I not getting the message right? What I take from this message is she didn’t give up…she did all she could to fight cancer…..so….her cancer was beat..

  17. After my son’s diagnosis, I found myself uncomfortable with folks attributing extra courage, grace, sadness, etc, to me, him, and our family. It’s kinda bullshit. We simply walked the path we had to. Some of our fellow travelers didn’t survive. One more will die soon. We still get a little ptsd over colds and headaches. We did some courageous things, like sharing our story, raising money for research, etc, but I don’t think there’s much courageous in surviving. I may share more thoughts later.

  18. I absolutely agree with how you viewed the billboard. I remember several years ago when a friend’s husband died from bacterial pneumonia and someone implied that if he had fought hard enough, he would have survived, What a cruel idea! If only your loved one REALLY WANTED to live, they would have?
    I hope that the marketing department of the Mayo Clinic Health System presents future ideas to focus groups before embarking on any advertising program.

    1. Linda, Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I still get riled up when I think about that billboard. And I like your idea about the focus groups.

  19. On another note… yes, I find this billboard and this sentiment terribly offensive. My father died of AIDS, I remember a comment from a sibling that he didn’t fight enough (after having him leave her house and coming to move in with me to die, so how she would know, I don’t know). I have heard variations on this theme, spoken in different ways. For example the liquor store clerk who said the owner’s wife just “gave up ” and stopped trying, stopped eating (She had esophogeal cancer!!!) Now that I’m further along on this “PATH” I think I shall not shut up next I hear someone say that. Thank you again for your good writing and insights Nancy. I wish I had a way to get notified about updates to posts here. I do feel bad if I have never responded to anything posted back on here, but I don’t get notifications

    1. Julia, I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. The billboard was taken down. Thank goodness. So important for us all to speak up when we see an offensive ad. Social media can accomplish a lot of good sometimes. Thank you for reading and commenting too.

  20. A local organization here in the South Bay (Santa Clara County, CA) – Cancer CAREpoint, put up a highway billboard last year that outraged me. It said “Think Traffic is Rough…..So Is Cancer! Get Support at Cancer CAREpoint”

    The sign was huge – on the Highway 85 side of Good Samaritan Hospital. I have a pic, but I don’t know how I can upload.

    I had some back and forth with their ED about it, and finally gave up when he wanted me to COME INTO HIS OFFICE TO DISCUSS. The sign came down a few months later, and NOW IT IS BACK!!!!!

    1. Dina, I’m glad you expressed your opinions about the sign with someone. Not sure how I feel about that one, but it does sound odd. Makes a person wonder who thinks this stuff up. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Monica, I am sorry to hear about all those deaths in your family. It wasn’t about them giving up, which is exactly why that billboard was so offensive. Thank you for taking time to share.

  21. Hmm it appears like your website ate my first comment (it was extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any tips for rookie blog writers? I’d certainly appreciate it.|

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