Poonam Pandey’s Misguided Move: Spotlighting the Need for Celebrity Responsibility in Cancer Awareness


Poonam Pandey undoubtedly succeeded in her goal of becoming a topic of conversation albeit by throwing ethics, sensitivity and basic empathy to the winds.

Until she put out a fake announcement about her demise on Instagram, I had no idea of her existence. As a Stage 4 terminal cancer patient, I am revolted by her selfish act. My husband, who rarely reacts on such matters, also felt extremely triggered as a caregiver. Not only has she insulted the daily struggle of millions of cancer patients and their families but has also made a mockery of death. People like me who suffer, physically and mentally, sometimes for months and years on end, would perhaps rejoice at the idea of dropping dead in an instant, only to resurface a day later!

What concerns me even more than what this lady and her team have done, is the shocking defence that some people are putting forth for her act of sheer mindlessness. Many have been voicing that they ‘at least’ know about cervical cancer now or that they googled cancer symptoms after seeing her post. Others are applauding her for creating ‘awareness’ about a disease that no one talks about.

As a public health and policy professional who has spent every day of my professional life attempting to create awareness about public health issues and alleviate societal stigma, I can say with great confidence that awareness is not generated by trending on social media platforms for a few hours or days. Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day.

It requires persistent and dedicated effort by all stakeholders (government, corporates, civil society, media, citizens) at every level. Ms. Pandey and her team are perhaps oblivious to the fact that the majority of cervical cancer cases and deaths occur in rural India, where her Instagram posts are perhaps not as popular as they are in urban settings. If she really cares about awareness and saving lives, she should spend her time talking to women from rural and tribal parts of the country. 

In fact, if anything her post created more apprehension as many patients who were as triggered as I was but were perhaps not equally well informed about the disease, felt fearful at the very thought of someone who appeared to be perfectly healthy in her Instagram posts just a few days back suddenly dropping dead. For the record, cancer patients do not just vanish off the face of this earth, unless we have a stroke or heart attack or are run over in a road accident! Even for Stage 4 cancer, we now have treatments that can allow people to live for months and years. 

There are two broader questions that this whole episode raises in my mind. First, are we dependent on such momentary acts of insanity to create awareness about a disease like cancer which is affecting or will affect nearly every family in the country? Most of us have either experienced this disease personally or through a family member, friend or colleague.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer estimates that around one in five people develop cancer in their lifetimes. One in nine men and one in 12 women die from the disease. Cancer Research UK had previously estimated that 1 in 2 people in the UK will develop cancer in their lifetimes. 

If anything, this unfortunate incident should be a moment of serious introspection and wake up call for all stakeholders. If we are relying on Poonam Pandey for cancer awareness, we have a problem on our hands, and a big one at that. Are we all really doing enough in our own capacities to improve the knowledge of this disease and access to treatments?

Gynecologists across the country, for instance, need to ask themselves what they are doing to make patients who are coming to them for unrelated issues, aware of breast and cervical cancer? The media needs to ask itself if it does enough to raise awareness about cancer, without waiting for a Poonam Pandey like story to break. Governments need to find more effective ways of reaching out to people in the underserved areas. 

The second key question is how can we ensure greater accountability and social responsibility of celebrities and ‘influencers’. Undoubtedly, social media is a tremendous platform for reaching out to millions of people. However, while Poonam Pandey has taken things too far, there have been several instances, in the past too, of the power of these platforms being misused to talk about sensitive and highly technical issues like health and nutrition.

If people actually follow the ‘advice’ offered by such ‘influencers’, it can be to their detriment. Frequently, ‘influencers’ will offer cures to diseases like cancer or diabetes through unproven remedies lacking a rigorous evidence base. Such false promises can distract patients from seeking proper medical advice or even interfere with their treatments. 

A large number of so-called ‘influencers’ neither have any technical training nor a lived experience of dealing with the health related issues they preach about on social media. In fact, even if an individual has had a lived experience of say cancer or depression, they cannot give medical advice to another patient. They can, at best, share their own experience of what worked and what did not.

The Advertising Standards Council of India(ASCI) has revised its influencer advertising guidelines to place additional responsibility on advertising content of health and finance ‘influencers’. The regulator has recognised that “inaccurate and deceptive advertising content in categories such as banking, financial services and insurance (BFSI), and health and nutrition products and services, could significantly impact consumer well-being and financial security”. ASCI’s annual complaints report, 2022–23 revealed that the content of one in every four brands processed by it had an influencer violation. 

While regulations can and must come into play, influencers, brands and agencies managing them also need to be socially responsible. Putting out anything and everything for views, likes and followers cannot become the norm. It is equally important for every citizen to not follow any health or medical advice offered by an ‘influencer’ without due consultation with qualified professionals. We must also hold these ‘influencers’ and celebrities accountable else the likes of Poonam Pandey will keep wreaking havoc on social media platforms to further their own selfish interests.

Urvashi Prasad is the Director, Development Monitoring & Evaluation Office, NITI Aayog.

The article was first published in The times of India as Poonam Pandey’s misguided stint: A call for accountability in celebrity influence and Cancer awareness on February 11,2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organization.

Read more at IMPRI: Health Digitalization: Transforming the Health System

Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Nadiya Murshed, a research intern at IMPRI.