The Washington Post

J. Paul Van Nevel, cancer communications leader, dies at 75

J. Paul Van Nevel, a National Cancer Institute communications director who broadened the public’s access to the latest information about the disease and developed innovative cancer-prevention campaigns seen by millions of people over their breakfast bowls, died Aug. 4 at his home in Rockville. He was 75.

The cause was complications from progressive supranuclear palsy, said his daughter Catherine Van Nevel.

Starting in the 1970s, Mr. Van Nevel initiated many government health-information practices that are ubiquitous today, including toll-free information hotlines and pamphlets delivering the latest scientific findings in everyday language. His aim was to build the institution’s brand and authority just as the public was becoming more health conscious.

“Paul Van Nevel has had an incredible impact on public health,” said Otis Brawley, the American Cancer Society’s chief medical and scientific officer and a former physician-scientist at the cancer institute. “Many of us who do public education learned how to do it from Paul.”

Early in his career, Mr. Van Nevel headed public relations at the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s medical center and the Johns Hopkins Hospital and research institutions.

J. Paul Van Nevel died Aug. 4 at his home in Rockville. He was 75. (Family Photo )

In 1973, he started at the NCI , part of the National Institutes of Health. It was two years after President Richard M. Nixon declared what became known as the war on cancer and increased research funding.

Mr. Van Nevel spearheaded a toll-free service (800-4CANCER) to deliver treatment and prevention information to patients and families. Launched in 1975, the Cancer Information Service continues to handle more than 100,000 calls each year.

“There was nobody in the country that provided that kind of help to [patients], including the American Cancer Society, because cancer had been long considered a death sentence,” Mr. Van Nevel said in a 1999 oral history of the Bethesda-based cancer institute.

Using social-marketing techniques common to consumer products, Mr. Van Nevel and his staff brought anti-cancer messages to churches, barbershops and, to the ire of the Food and Drug Administration, the backs of cereal boxes.

In 1984, Mr. Van Nevel persuaded Kellogg to print NCI’s toll-free number on its All-Bran cereal packaging, along with a line suggesting that a high-fiber diet could prevent some types of cancer.

The campaign generated 70,000 phone calls to the cancer institute – and testy meetings with furious FDA officials, who viewed such health claims as their responsibility. The relationship with Kellogg also raised questions about whether the NIH was endorsing the cereal and whether consumers would infer a link between eating All-Bran and preventing cancer.

Mr. Van Nevel said the risk was worth taking. “We knew that the FDA would probably be concerned but decided not to tell them, because we looked on it as an opportunity to get what we called a health message out to the public,” he said in the 1999 interview.

Mr. Van Nevel, a member of the Senior Executive Service, also was credited with encouraging two generations of scientists to be more open with the public and reporters. He retired in 2000.

“Paul transformed the role of communications at the National Institutes of Health,” said John Burklow, now the NIH’s head of communications. “He made communications an integral part of science.”

John Paul Van Nevel was born on April 26, 1938, in New Richmond, Wis. He was a 1961 journalism graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison and from 1962 to 1964 served in the Army as an instructor of news writing.

Survivors include his wife of 51 years, Lois Anderson Van Nevel of Rockville; two daughters, Catherine Van Nevel of Laytonsville and Kari Buckard of New Hope, Pa.; two brothers; six sisters; and seven grandchildren.

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