Monday, March 4, 2024

Cervical cancer is no joke!

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Actor Poonam Pandey, by faking her own death ostensibly to spread public awareness about cervical cancer, may have ignited a debate on the limits to which advocacy groups and vaccine makers can go to achieve their respective goals. But the alarming fact is that, as per experts, with age-standardised incidence and mortality rates of 22 and 12.4 per 1,00,000 women per year, cervical cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women in India. Tanisha Saxena explores the intricate layers of this unconventional awareness campaign, with insights from industry experts, celebrities, and medical professionals to put in perspective the imperatives of tackling cervical cancer on priority.

Key facts
as per WHO
Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women globally with an estimated 6,04, 000 new cases and 3,42,000 deaths in 2020.
The highest rates of cervical cancer incidence and mortality are in low- and middle-income countries. This reflects major inequities driven by lack of access to national HPV vaccination, cervical screening and treatment services and social and economic determinants.
Cervical cancer is caused by persistent infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV).  Women living with HIV are six times more likely to develop cervical cancer compared to women without HIV.
Prophylactic vaccination against HPV and screening and treatment of pre-cancer lesions are effective ways to prevent cervical cancer and are very cost-effective.
Cervical cancer can be cured if diagnosed at an early stage and treated promptly.

Countries around the world are working to accelerate the elimination of cervical cancer in the coming decades, with an agreed set of three targets to be met by 2030.

Shocking stunt or advocacy gone awry?
Faking death is a complex and often morally questionable concept, involving intentional deception. It raises ethical questions and entails legal consequences. The implications of such a bizarre act extend beyond personal motives, affecting relationships, legal systems, and societal trust. On February 2, 2024, a statement posted on actor Poonam Pandey’s official social media handle conveyed a somber message: “This morning has been a tough one for us. It is with deep sorrow that we inform you of the passing of our beloved Poonam, succumbing to cervical cancer.” News reports based on leads from the post ‘validated’ her demise, some even citing ‘confirmation’ from her manager. Substantial time elapsed before Poonam’s prank made way to the revelation that it was after all intended to promote cervical cancer awareness.
The actor’s purported demise was initially shared via a black-background post on her Instagram, prompting widespread media coverage on her legacy and the importance of cervical cancer awareness. However, doubts arose as her family members became unreachable, and an investigative journalist discovered discrepancies, including a fake mobile number provided by Pandey’s manager.
Coincidentally, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced a cervical cancer vaccination drive the day before! As the pieces fell into place, Pandey seemingly abandoned the ruse and posted Instagram reels, revealing she is alive and attributing the stunt to the need for raising awareness. The incident raises serious questions about the ethical boundaries of leveraging one’s death for publicity.

Backlash: the emotional fallout
The emotional toll on fans who genuinely mourned the loss of their favorite actor cannot be overlooked. The shock and grief experienced by those who believed in the post proclaiming her demise cannot be compensated by the belated realisation about the intended message about cervical cancer awareness. Some argue that a more compassionate and transparent approach could have been employed to convey the severity of the issue.

Actress Nikki Tamboli observes: “Absolute cheapness! It is disheartening to witness the depths to which some individuals will sink for a momentary spotlight. Faking one’s death, especially in the context of a serious illness like cancer, is not just tasteless but downright disrespectful. It trivialises the very real struggles that millions face worldwide and breaks the trust of those who genuinely care. Let’s not reward such attention-seeking behavior with our attention.”

Soniya Bansal, a participant in Big Boss 17, strongly opposed Poonam Pandey, for what she considered an insensitive and misleading attempt to raise awareness about cervical cancer. Bansal criticized this approach, highlighting ethical concerns associated with using one’s death for awareness, especially for a serious health issue like cervical cancer.

According to Bansal, the appropriate approach involves promoting awareness through informative channels, such as interviews, focusing on educating the public about the disease and prevention methods “She could have organised a press meet to create awareness about cervical cancer and how to prevent it,” said Bansal. Bansal also addressed the role of the media in this matter, urging caution in covering such events. She recommended that media outlets verify information before sharing it to ensure responsible reporting and prevent the spread of misinformation.
The impact of a public figure’s death today, amplified by social media, often leads to widespread mourning, shared memories, and a sense of collective grief among fans. Social media provides a platform for fans to express condolences, share personal connections, and celebrate the individual’s life. However, it can also intensify the mourning process, as the news spreads rapidly, making the loss feel more immediate and interconnected.
Vidyut Nigam, a cinephile shares: “While scrolling through Instagram news, the fake news about Poonam Pandey’s death caught me off guard. I briefly felt for her and her family, but when it turned out to be untrue, I couldn’t understand why someone would fake their death. It left me feeling frustrated and unable to see any positive aspect in such a misleading act.”
“Such a cheap way to earn money in the name of the campaign and play with the emotions of people,” says actress Jyoti Saxena. Expressing vehement disapproval, Jyoti conveyed her anger, having lost a very close one to cancer recently, “This is one of the worst media strategies anyone could ever employ. Exploiting the tragedy of cervical cancer death for cheap publicity is not just acceptable at all; it’s downright disgusting. Cancer is a serious and sensitive subject, and using it as a tool for publicity is not only unethical but also harmful to the minds of young people.” She continued, “Spreading fake awareness on a matter as grave as cancer is a dangerous game. It not only creates unnecessary panic and fear but also dilutes the real issues at hand. We should be working towards genuine awareness. Celebrities’ social media accounts are used to spread awareness but not such cheap awareness as Poonam Pandey and her team did. Grow up morons! I feel pity for her for what all she had to do for the sake of money.”
Siddhant Karnick expressed deep sadness and surprise upon learning about Poonam’s playing possum to raise awareness about cervical cancer. Despite not following her on social media, he was aware of her journey and found the news shocking. He said, “Crossing the line with death and disease for cheap publicity is unacceptable. Announcing her death was a low point, and it highlighted the gravity of the taboo topics she had chosen to exploit. In retrospect, Poonam did not effectively communicate her intentions and goals. Instead, her outrageous tactic overshadowed the cause she aimed to support. Strict consequences for her and her PR team are necessary to discourage such actions in the future.” According to the actor, the unconventional methods used by Poonam do not justify the potential positive impact on cervical cancer awareness.
Celebrities and media professionals speak out
The actor’s decision to simulate her own death was a grossly insensitive approach. Cervical cancer is undoubtedly a serious health concern, but employing such extreme measures amounts to trivialising the gravity of the disease and causing unnecessary distress to fans and loved ones who believed in the prank.
Namita Rajhans, co-founder of Shimmery Entertainment, added: “Public relations should be built on transparency, honesty, and integrity. Faking a death undermines these principles, potentially leading to a loss of trust and credibility among your audience. It can create confusion, emotional distress, and negative publicity, detracting from the genuine message you aim to convey about cervical cancer awareness.”
“I strongly advise against pursuing such tactics, as they can have detrimental effects on your organisation’s reputation and the overall effectiveness of your awareness campaign. Instead, let’s explore alternative, ethical strategies that can authentically engage your audience and make a meaningful impact,” she added.
In the same vein, journalist Nayandeep Rakshit shared his thoughts on his social media platform, stating, “We, a group of journalists, were traveling back from Jordan to Mumbai after a set visit when we got to know that Poonam Pandey has passed away due to cervical cancer. While we were on the flight, some of us believed it, while others couldn’t buy it, and I was one of them. I sensed that it could be a promotional gimmick, and it turned out to be exactly the same.”
“Some of us didn’t believe it because of her own past histrionics and methods of staying relevant and in the news. They made a joke out of the very thing that cancer patients would fear – death. It is so casual for them to announce the death and gain news bytes and space, using the media, friends, colleagues, and the entire country and its people as mere puppets to this tomfoolery. Tomorrow, if she really dies, we won’t buy that anymore. And, she, of course, needs to render an apology to the people of India, the media, her colleagues, friends, and to all those cancer patients whom she has hurt by doing this cheap publicity stunt,” he added.
Actor and model Shefali Jariwala expressed her deep sadness and hurt over the incident, stating, “I can’t believe how insensitive people are. Though I don’t know Poonam Pandey personally, the fake drama of her demise to cervical cancer deeply affected me. I felt scared for my father, currently undergoing treatment for stage three colon cancer. Sleepless nights and overwhelming anxiety make me furious.”
Psychological impact:
the unintended consequences
While the actor’s intention to leverage a fake death for cervical cancer awareness may be rooted in noble motives, the psychological impact of such a campaign is multifaceted. The use of a staged death raises ethical concerns and can potentially do more harm than good. The shock and grief induced by the fabricated tragedy may lead to emotional distress among the audience, as they grapple with the transient illusion of loss.
Doctor Shradha Malik, CEO & Founder of Athena Behavioral Health, says: “From a psychological standpoint, exploiting emotions through a simulated death could undermine the trust between the public and the campaign. The potential backlash may overshadow the intended message about cervical cancer awareness, as the sensationalised approach may overshadow the genuine urgency of the cause. The campaign risks being perceived as manipulative, potentially eroding public trust in similar future endeavors. Furthermore, the psychological toll on individuals who genuinely believed in the actor’s demise should not be underestimated. The emotional investment of the audience in the narrative could lead to feelings of betrayal, confusion, and even anger once the truth is revealed. Such emotional turbulence may detract from the campaign’s original objective, creating a counterproductive effect where the negative repercussions outweigh the intended awareness.”
In light of these considerations, the psychological angle underscores the importance of ethical communication strategies in advocacy campaigns. The potential harm caused by exploiting emotional triggers should be carefully weighed against the benefits of creating awareness. Balancing impact with sensitivity and transparency becomes crucial to ensure that awareness campaigns not only deliver their intended message but also foster trust and emotional well-being within the audience.

Cervical cancer:
the right way to raise awareness
Cervical cancer, a result of abnormal cell growth in the cervix, poses a significant health concern for women and is primarily associated with various strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV). While the immune system typically tackles HPV, a persistent infection can lead to the transformation of cervical cells into cancerous ones.
Mitigating the risk of cervical cancer involves proactive measures such as screening tests and receiving an HPV vaccine. In cases of diagnosis, initial treatments often involve surgical procedures to remove the cancer. Additional modalities like chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and radiation therapy may also be employed, sometimes in combination.
Doctor Hrishikesh from Naad Wellness highlighted: “Early-stage cervical cancer may be asymptomatic, making regular screening crucial. As it progresses, symptoms become noticeable, including vaginal bleeding after intercourse, irregular menstrual bleeding, watery, bloody vaginal discharge, and pelvic pain or discomfort. Preventative measures extend beyond medical interventions. Maintaining a healthy weight and engaging in regular exercise play a vital role in reducing cervical cancer risk. Research suggests a correlation between body fat and cancer risk, with fat cells releasing hormones that increase susceptibility. Exercise not only stabilises hormone levels but also strengthens the immune system, supports digestion, and contributes to an overall positive lifestyle.”
Dr Hrishikesh says: “Cervical cancer prevention involves a multifaceted approach, including vaccination, regular screenings, healthy lifestyle choices, and complementary practices like yoga. Early detection and proactive measures significantly enhance the chances of successful treatment and recovery.”
Actress Hamsa Nandini, a cancer survivor, shares: “Reading the news deeply affected me as a cancer survivor, and it was particularly heartbreaking. I can imagine the emotional turmoil it might cause for someone currently battling breast cancer to hear about the demise of another celebrity due to the same disease. In such situations, maintaining hope becomes crucial – the driving force behind our fight for life. It is disheartening when influential individuals spread fake news, especially regarding something as sensitive as death from cancer. Media outlets should establish clear guidelines and refrain from relying on social media posts as sources, ensuring proper fact-checking to avoid causing unnecessary distress. Personally, I found it disgusting and hurtful.” She added, “In response to my own journey, I felt a responsibility to address the hopeful individuals who looked to me for inspiration. This led to the creation of the Yamini Cancer Foundation, where comprehensive information about various cancers, not just breast cancer, is available. Our advisory council includes renowned figures like Doctor Rajendra Badwe, MD of Tata Memorial Hospital, reflecting a commitment to genuine support. Furthermore, as an influential figure, I believe in spreading awareness through education. Just as sex education is taught at the grassroots level, I advocate for incorporating self-testing facilities and discussions about cancer in school and university curricula. Destigmatizing the conversation around cancer is essential, making it a common and open topic at dining tables, eliminating any hesitancy associated with discussing it.”
Facts matter
In today’s digital era, information circulates at unprecedented speed, making fact-checking by the media essential. Social media platforms amplify the reach of news, but they also increase the risk of misinformation. Fact-checking ensures that accurate and verified information prevails, promoting a more informed public. It upholds journalistic integrity, trust in media, and helps counter the negative impact of fake news on society and individual decision-making.
“As a media research professional, I see information verification as the bedrock of journalistic integrity. It is not merely a procedural step, but a meticulous process that safeguards the very essence of reliable reporting. Rigorous fact-checking serves as a sentinel against the encroachment of misinformation, ensuring that every article stands as a beacon of accuracy in a sea of data. In our pursuit of truth, we don’t just report news; we sculpt it with precision, carving out a narrative that the public can trust,” says Vinod Kumar, an independent researcher.

In conclusion, Poonam Pandey’s controversial use of a staged death to raise awareness about cervical cancer has sparked a heated debate on ethical boundaries in advocacy. The emotional fallout on fans, the condemnation from celebrities, and the psychological impact highlight the unintended consequences of such extreme measures. The importance of ethical communication strategies, transparent awareness campaigns, and responsible media coverage emerges as crucial in fostering genuine understanding and support for critical health issues like cervical cancer. The imperative of fact-checking in media is underscored as misinformation can have far-reaching consequences. Moving forward, a thoughtful and compassionate approach is necessary to ensure that awareness efforts effectively convey their messages while respecting the emotional well-being of the audience.
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