I thought I knew something about oncology. After all, as the head of planning for a healthcare brand agency, I had helped to win and launch some significant new brands tapping into the emergence of biomarker testing and immuno-oncology. And just six months before, I had lost my mother to lung cancer.
As marketers in the healthcare world, we focus on understanding the realities of the marketplace. We believe strongly in the notion of putting the human reality at the center of everything we do. Instead of focusing on selling product features and benefits, our role is to help people make better, more confident decisions about their health. It's our fundamental belief: "helping, not selling." It's a people-inspired approach that helps us identify the "BrandFit idea" that will create healthy, fit brands that fit meaningfully into peoples lives — patients, their caregivers, the doctors and nurses and other health care professionals who care for them.
But we're not often called upon to apply this thinking to ourselves.
Just over a year ago, I noticed a funny little pimple on the rim of my nostril. And promptly forgot about it. A few weeks later, my daughter asked me what that thing was in my nose. So I made an appointment with my dermatologist for a few weeks later. The surgeon thought it was nothing. I didn't give it another thought…
Until New Year's Eve Day at 2 p.m., when he called with the news. I had a rare, aggressive neuroendocrine form of skin cancer called merkel cell carcinoma. I needed radical surgery to remove the left side of my nose and major reconstructive surgery.
Three hours later, I had read everything there was to read. That's a terrible feeling for a planner who thrives on data. There was almost none. Two studies. One with 52 people saying wide area excision plus radiation more successful than surgery alone. A study with 22 people in adjuvant chemo. Inconclusive findings. Average prognosis from the NCCN (National Comprehensive Cancer Network) — five months? What? That is just not an option.
Sitting in the oncologist’s office, I am asked what I think. What an amazing doctor. So I tell him what I've learned and that it seems that I have one shot and it's to be as aggressive with the treatment as possible.
I signed up for what turned out to be a total of six surgeries, eight weeks of aggressive chemo and radiation, and every possible alternative treatment to help me with the side effects.
What have I learned? Knowledgeable consumer opinion leaders who take the time to understand their options, share what they are thinking with their doctors, and create a truly integrated care team, are most likely to have a better treatment experience. And teach their doctors something along the way. As health care marketers, we have much to learn from the patients and caregivers who are driven to understand more, learn more, and fully understand their options.
Now back at work, I am further expanding our approach to gathering insights, not just in oncology. From co-creation sessions where we invite knowledgeable consumers and doctors to help us refine our communications strategies, to ongoing partnerships with patient advocates who are driving the real-world conversation, we have more sources to truly understand the human reality than ever before. As we build our clients’ businesses, we are reminded every single day that behind every Rx is a human experience that we can learn from.
Today, I am cancer free. There is a reason I am still here. And I believe it's about helping, not selling.