It's (fill-in-the-blank) awareness month. How aware are you of any of them?

Up to a dozen causes claim each month of the year
It's (fill-in-the-blank) awareness month. How aware are you of any of them?
Posted at 7:00 AM, Nov 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-27 07:00:02-05

Did you know that November is lung cancer awareness month?

It's also bladder health awareness month, Alzheimer's awareness month, COPD awareness month and eight or nine other "months."

Every month of the year (except December) has at least a dozen causes or diseases officially attached to it, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

With so many "awareness months," do those individual causes or diseases really experience a benefit during their official month? Or are the months too crowded to produce any real benefit for any one cause?

Local nonprofits that raise money and/or awareness say that any attention is good attention when it comes to their cause, and they do think those awareness months are a valuable tool.

While the number of awareness days (or weeks or months) is on the rise, the impact on health is relatively unknown. A paper published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2015 reports that there are almost 200 official "health awareness days." That paper was one of the first to explore the potential impact of such days, weeks or months on health.

Researchers found that such awareness days are a good way to shed light on an issue, but it will have more of a long-term impact on health if there is some action recommended. For example, if you tell people that invasive breast cancer is diagnosed in 246,660 American women each year, it is more impactful if you also give instruction on how to do a self-breast exam or where you can donate to research.

The Testicular Cancer Society, a locally launched organization with national reach, raises awareness in April's testicular cancer awareness month -- and beyond -- by providing facts in a sometimes-humorous way about a cancer that involves a body part that isn't typically mentioned in casual conversation. The organization also provides resources on its website and community forums. The goal for that group is more about awareness than funding, so the awareness month is an added opportunity to catch people's attention.

For testicular cancer -- a cancer that is very curable if caught early and that is mostly found in young men -- Mike Craycraft, Testicular Cancer Society's founder, said April shows a big jump in traffic on the organization's social-media sites compared to other times of the year. More awareness about the disease is a good thing, especially for a cancer that isn't talked about as much as some other, more deadly or common cancers, he said.

"A lack of awareness leads to late diagnosis, higher treatment burdens and unnecessary death. If caught at an early stage, it is almost 100 percent curable," Craycraft said of testicular cancer. "Unfortunately, we know through our national surveys, guys just aren't aware of it, and it is young guys. The awareness component is so key for our disease."

April is also autism awareness month. For the Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati, raising awareness of autism -- with a big push in April as well as year-round efforts -- is a key component of what the organization does, especially since early diagnosis and early intervention are so important for those on the autism spectrum, said Charmaine Kessinger, executive director.

"That time period in April we can focus on making people aware of autism, what the symptoms are, what early diagnosis is and how that helps and what services are available," Kessinger said. "So we see that as a public service of getting out and telling the public in general about it and, specifically, if we can reach anybody, even if that is one person, that they can go further to see their doctor and get assistance for their child or an adult with autism, too."

She also noted that an awareness month offers the general public a chance to gain a better understanding of the spectrum and greater empathy for people with autism.

Debbie Walter, co-chair of the Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Greater Cincinnati, said September -- which is ovarian cancer awareness month -- is a time when the organization hosts its largest fundraiser, Teal Power 5K run/walk, and also directs its energy at smaller campaigns for fundraising and awareness. The group works on the organization's goals year-round, but September is their busiest month and the "awareness month" propels the volunteers to be especially engaged.

All of those efforts and events hosted in September equate to the largest amount of research funds raised for the year through the organization.

For a disease that is often diagnosed in the later stages because of vague symptoms that women sometimes ignore -- such as a swollen abdomen or feeling full quickly when eating -- Walter thinks any chance to raise awareness is helpful.

"It is so important to get the symptoms out there, because that is how we are going to save lives. People are just unaware of the disease." Walter said. "I think if they know about it, they assume that when they do their annual exam that a pap smear detects it -- and it does not."

There is some evidence, though a very small amount, that suggests some awareness campaigns on certain topics could actually have a negative impact.

One research paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that warning people about the dangers of smoking may actually lead people to smoke out of anxiety. Another paper discusses social-norms marketing -- for example, raising awareness about domestic violence, this research paper proposes, may normalize the behavior and make it more likely to happen.

The bottom line: There isn't a lot of hard scientific research that shows what impact awareness campaigns may or may not have -- good or bad.

Anecdotally, people who are working to raise awareness for a cause do see more phone calls, more social-media discussion and more web hits during those awareness campaigns. But what isn't as clear is the long-term effect – which may be impossible to ever really quantify.

But for those fighting for a cause, any awareness seems like a positive.