A list of the high-profile supporters of the fight against breast cancer reads like a Who's Who of professions, ranging from showbusiness and fashion to politics and business. Just a small sample could include Cherie Booth, Anthea Turner, Geri Halliwell, Joan Collins, Posh Spice, Tamara Beckwith, Stella McCartney and Anna Friel. A comprehensive roll- call would fill this whole page.

As for the businesses throwing themselves behind the cause, Asda, Avon, Nivea and Superdrug are lining up beside Royal Doulton, Silhouette lingerie and British Telecom, and again this is only the tip of a monstrous iceberg.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month kicks off next Friday, with a host of promotional events: radio and television specials, a new magazine, and of course, the sale of the now-famous pink ribbons.

And this is only in Britain; there is a similar effort taking place in the US, equally well-supported by the famous, great - and rich.

This kind of celebrity boost, plus business and media support, is an impossible dream for most causes. So how have the breast cancer charities managed it?

Breast cancer is a major and ugly disease, which kills 13,000 women every year - but so is heart disease, which kills six times more women annually. In Scotland, lung cancer has overtaken breast cancer as the biggest killer of women.

"In England and Wales, breast cancer is still the major killer, but lung and colon are close behind," says Professor Gordon McVie of the Cancer Research Campaign. The scandalous disparity in care for breast cancer across the country has been highlighted again and again but, says Prof McVie, "there is a far bigger disparity between parts of the country in bowel cancer prognosis".

McVie points out that there is no screening programme for any male cancer. This week figures showed that men in Britain now have the same slim chance of surviving prostate cancer as men in Estonia. Last year, the Government gave pounds 4.3 million to breast cancer research, the amount going to prostate cancer fell to pounds 47,000.

Plainly, breast cancer campaigners are doing a phenomenal job both at fundraising and at raising awareness. Could other causes learn from them, or is breast cancer a special case?

Over the past few years, breast cancer has gone from being a taboo subject to one aired regularly in the media. There must be few women left who aren't aware of the importance of examining their breasts regularly. Once an issue has a storyline in EastEnders it's well away - Peggy Mitchell's breast cancer was a main focus for weeks. Other diseases simply haven't made the leap from taboo to being a topic that is openly discussed. "We would like people to talk about their bottoms and men about their prostates in the same way that breasts are talked about," says Susan Osborne, director of communications at the Cancer Research Campaign. "Bowel cancer is particularly horrible - but no one wants to talk about it. Ten years ago, no one talked about their breasts in such an open way - but now it is wonderful the way that women are standing up to be counted. The breast is not just an object of desire now, and health issues can be talked about. We have to do the same for bowels."

Professor Trevor Powles, head of the breast unit at the Royal Marsden Hospital, agrees that breast cancer is particularly high-profile. He suggests that two scandals in the history of the treatment of breast cancer brought the disease to public notice. Thirty years ago treatment for breast cancer involved a radical mastectomy - a mutilating operation. Then it was discovered that it was often possible to remove the tumour but save the breast. "Around 1980," he says, "it became clear that women who were eligible for conservation weren't getting it, and this became a huge scandal." Further publicity followed in the wake of news that women were not always getting appropriate drug treatment. "There was a big public groundswell of awareness," says Professor Powles. "Breast cancer was placed very firmly on the political agenda and it has stayed there." Susan Osborne believes celebrity endorsement of campaigns against breast cancer has also played a vital part. As soon as celebrities get involved, of course, big brand names see the promotional opportunities too. Supporting a good cause is all very well, being seen to support a good cause is even better.

"Using celebrities takes away the taboos. It shows that there is nothing to be ashamed of, that cancer is no respecter of age, sex

status, creed or colour," says Osborne. "When Geri Halliwell says she's had a breast cancer scare, it's front-page news." Both the major breast cancer charities, Breakthrough Breast Cancer, which concentrates mainly on fundraising for research, and Breast Cancer Care, which focuses on care and support for victims and their families, are grateful to the celebrities who've rallied to their cause.

"It is very important," says Stuart Barber, Breakthrough's press officer and celebrity co-ordinator. "Celebrities are very media-friendly and if we can put forward well-known names it really helps us." It has not, he says, been difficult to find willing recruits. "Everyone knows someone who's been affected by breast cancer, so everyone is willing to help."

Sure enough, at last week's launch of an exhibition of photos by Patrick Demarchelier (shots of stars like Anna Friel, the Corrs, Victoria Adams and Stella McCartney) a number of the star guests, including Mariella Frostrup, Joan Collins and Luciana Morad said that friends or family had suffered or had scares. The photographs will be auctioned for Breast Cancer Care.

As well as star support, a highly professional marketing strategy has been a great advantage. Both Breast Cancer Care and Breakthrough took their initial cues from clever campaigns in the US. "It goes back about four years to when we were looking at the best way to get breast cancer on the agenda," says Isabel Campbell, Breast Cancer Care's fundraising and marketing director. "We looked to see what was going on in the States, and they were having great success with Breast Cancer Awareness month and the pink ribbon campaign." Breast Cancer Care worked with Estee Lauder to bring the concept to Britain and focus on awareness in the high street.

"Year on year we have to be one step ahead in terms of fundraising techniques," says Campbell. "The States are still light years ahead." She has been looking at an event called Race for the Cure, a running race for women who have survived breast cancer or those commemorating women who have died. "They are very loud and proud, and all wear bright pink," she says.

Whether the breast cancer charities' successes are down to marketing, celebrity support or unusually high public and political awareness, the coup they have pulled off is incredible. Income from the Fashion Targets Breast Cancer campaign, run every other year by Breakthrough, has quadrupled since its launch in 1996 - last year it raised pounds 1.6 million. Over the same period, income from Breakthrough's other campaigns doubled. Last week, the charity presided over the launch of the UK's first dedicated research facility, the Breakthrough Toby Robins Breast Cancer Research Centre; pounds 15 million of funds were raised. And Breast Cancer Care's annual October Awareness Month will raise around pounds 1 million this year, from around pounds 100,000 in 1995.

Vicki Pullman, of the Charities Aid Foundation is impressed. "Over the last 20 years we have found that fewer people are giving to charity, and other forms of income such as grants are being squeezed too," she says. "There are 180,000 registered charities vying for funds from a shrinking donor base. So the increases breast cancer charities are reporting are really very impressive."

They are helped, she says, by the fact that this is a cause people are universally sympathetic to, as profile-raising is particularly difficult for charities in "unpopular" fields such as alcohol abuse or prisoner support. "These causes aren't undeserving but they don't have broad mass appeal," she says. "Some very big charities don't have patrons. Celebrities don't always associate themselves with charities for purely altruistic reasons - it can be for the benefit of image too."

About the only setback for breast cancer campaigning so far is that it has perhaps been too successful. The Imperial Cancer Research Fund has suggested that using young spokeswomen, such as Geri Halliwell, creates unnecessary fear among younger women over contracting the disease (one in 11 women will die of breast cancer, but this applies to women up to the age of 85, and the risk for the under-30s is one in 2,165). It's rare for over-exposure rather that underexposure to be cited as a problem for a charity.

"Breast cancer is a cause celebre now," says the Cancer Research Campaign's Susan Osborne. "It's an interesting phenomenon. Now we have to worry about other cancers that aren't so glamorous, if cancer can ever be glamorous."

For more information:

Breast Cancer Breakthrough (tel: 0171 405 5111).

British Heart Foundation (tel: 0870 600 6566).

Imperial Cancer Research (tel: 0171 269 3662).

Helen Rollason Cancer Care Appeal (tel: 0181 887 2293).

Prostate Cancer Charity (tel: 0181 383 1948).