What If Cancer Patients Were Treated Like Addicts?

By Kelly Burch 03/31/17
A new ad campaign spotlights the stigma of addiction by using the tough love approach on people with diseases like cancer.
A still from the "Stop The Shame"ad campaign.
Photo via YouTube

A new ad campaign for a Kansas City-based recovery organization challenges viewers to think about what would happen if people treated cancer patients the way that they treat addiction patients, in an ad that is designed to challenge the stigma around addiction. 

“How many times are we gonna go through this?” the mother of a cancer patient asks in the video.

“Why buddy?” a father asks his hospitalized son. “You were doing so good.”

The patient, who appears to have recently had chemotherapy, receives the tough love that many addicts are familiar with and that many family members are told they must give their loved ones. 

“He did this to himself,” the mother says before a message appears on the screen. “What if we treated people with cancer the way we treat people with addiction?” it asks, before proclaiming that “addiction is a disease.”

The idea for the ad campaign came from last year's Surgeon General’s report, which emphasized that addiction is a disease, not a character flaw. Despite the report, the message still needs to be shared. 

“There are still a lot of people out there who feel that addiction is a moral failing, a choice, and I’m not saying that addicts don’t have a part in it. It’s like any disease: first and foremost it’s genetic,” said John Godsey, chief creative officer of VML, the advertising firm that collaborated with the First Call recovery organization. 

Designing the campaign was poignant for Godsey, who is in recovery.

“It’s very much a passion project for me because I have been sober for 12 years and I’ve had a lot of people in my family die from addiction,” he said. “I’ve said pretty much all the lines in these spots and I’ve had them said to me.”

Susan Whitmore, president and CEO of First Call, said that she designed the ads to be powerful in order to save lives. 

“Frankly, it’s because people are dying and have been dying for a long time,” she said. “People die behind shame all the time and in the last 15 years there’s been substantial research about the fact that substance abuse disorders are brain disorders and that drugs and alcohol change people’s brain chemistry in a way that contributes to the fact that it’s a chronic and progressive disease that needs to be treated.”

The campaign also makes other comparisons. One ad shows what it would look like if Parkinson’s patients were treated with the same approach. 

“You have to make a choice right now,” a woman in the video says to her mother. “Parkinson’s or us.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.