Pharma gets social: Lilly Oncology on Canvas, a social initiative spanning eight years

Daniel Ghinn

Creation Healthcare

(Continued from Pharma gets social: pharma on Pinterest)

Today we have an article by social media expert, Daniel Ghinn, about Lilly Oncology on Canvas. This social initiative has a Facebook, Twitter and YouTube following, as well as a global annual competition where cancer patients, family and friends are invited to submit original artwork depicting their cancer journey.

Two years before Twitter ever existed, Lilly launched a social initiative that encouraged people affected by cancer to share their experiences through art and narrative. Over the years that have followed, thousands of pieces of original artwork have been created by cancer patients, their families, friends and carers from 43 countries. The artwork produced has toured 200 cities worldwide.

“Lilly Oncology on Canvas means focusing on the entire patient, beyond just our medications”, says Tim Cook, Vice President, Lilly Oncology. “We have a grand vision to change the world of cancer care… through Lilly Oncology on Canvas we give patients a way to express the emotional component of cancer”.

Presented in partnership with the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, the initiative is a powerful example of multi-stakeholder collaboration that has proved to be sustainable for eight years so far. Every two years a new competition is launched, inviting people to submit original artwork and narrative that depicts their cancer journey, using one of six media: watercolor, oil, pastel, photography, acrylic or mixed media.


“…thousands of pieces of original artwork have been created by cancer patients, their families, friends and carers from 43 countries.”


Launched in 2004, the Oncology on Canvas competition collected 400 pieces of art from people affected by cancer in the US. In 2006, the reach was extended internationally and 2,000 pieces were received from 43 countries. With further competitions in 2008 and 2010, the collection now holds 3,600 pieces.

The power of the initiative is in providing a channel through which patients and caregivers share their stories. In visual form, the artwork transcends language barriers. Each piece of artwork tells a unique story, visually, and through the narrative that accompanies it.

Thomas P Sellers, President &amp, CEO, National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship and himself a cancer survivor says that the art plays a part in the healing process: “Finding a way to express what you’re going through is an important part of finding hope and of being healed”.

Since its launch in 2004 as a primarily offline engagement initiative, Lilly Oncology on Canvas has added new channels as they have emerged. As well as the website at, today a dedicated YouTube channel tells some of the initiative’s success stories and provides advice to help people get started in creating artworks. A Twitter profile and Facebook page also support the initiative for users in participating regions.


“The power of the initiative is in providing a channel through which patients and caregivers share their stories.”


In many ways, Oncology on Canvas has all the ingredients of a powerful multichannel social campaign. It mixes traditional channels, like paint on canvas – they don’t come much more traditional than that – and an art exhibition road show, with digital video and social media used to support the competition and raise awareness.

Yet I have a sense that the initiative is not fully exploiting its opportunity to reach far wider through social media. The Twitter profile provides only one-way broadcast messages and does not follow anybody. Just 158 tweets have been sent since the profile’s launch in September 2009 to its 600 or so followers.

Is this a missed opportunity to engage people living with cancer, the art community, and other stakeholders? Arguably, yet there is something increasingly refreshing about Lilly focusing their energy in this initiative on media that you have to pick up and physically deliver to the next location, getting people together in person to truly appreciate it. This is an initiative that has evolved well so far and in the years to come, social media may yet play a significant role in inspiring greater levels of participation and bringing more people together in person to enjoy the art.

The 2012 competition is now underway, and open to residents of the US and Puerto Rico who were diagnosed with any type of cancer – as well as their families, friends, caregivers and healthcare providers – to express, through art and narrative, “the life-affirming changes that give their cancer journeys meaning”.


About the author:

Daniel Ghinn’s new book, Pathways to Engagement for Healthcare Organizations, is out in June 2012. Daniel is CEO of Creation Healthcare, the global consultancy he founded in 1998 which helps healthcare organizations to improve their effectiveness in the digital age through campaign planning. He is a speaker, teacher and writer on the changing healthcare engagement environment.

Daniel can be reached by email at or on Twitter at @EngagementStrat.

How do you think Lilly Oncology on Canvas can increase its engagement with patients?