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Survey Shows “Alarming Downturns” in Awareness of Cancer Risks

World Cancer Day logoNew figures from the AICR Cancer Risk Awareness Survey show that fewer Americans than ever realize that factors like alcohol, obesity, lack of physical activity and poor diets increase cancer risk.

Instead, Americans are far more likely to worry about many factors over which they have no direct control or for which the link to cancer remains unclear, such as food additives and pesticide residue on produce.

To mark World Cancer Day (February 4) AICR commissioned its Cancer Risk Awareness Survey. The survey, conducted periodically since 2001,  asks respondents to select those factors they believe have “a significant effect on whether or not the average person develops cancer.” See below to access the full report.

“We look to this survey to gauge how well Americans are putting the news they’re always hearing about cancer research and prevention into the proper context,” said AICR’s Alice Bender, MS, RD, “and these latest numbers worry us.”

Alarming Downturns

Are Americans focusing on the factors that can make a real difference in their cancer risk? In at least three key areas, the news is not good:

  • Diets low in vegetables and fruit increase cancer risk: Only 43 percent say yes. Awareness has experienced a steep drop, having trended steadily upward peaking at 52 percent in 2009.  Strong evidence links diets high in vegetables, fruits and other plant foods to reduced risk for nine different kinds of cancer, including those of the colon, stomach and pancreas.
  • Alcohol increases risk. Only 38 percent of Americans now recognize alcohol as a risk, a drop from 46 percent in 2009 that reverses another upward trend. Alcohol is a cause of many cancers, including those of the breast, esophagus and mouth.
  • Lack of physical activity increases risk. The steepest and most worrisome drop in awareness – only 36% know this. In 2009, nearly half of Americans – 46 percent – a drop of 10% knowing that being inactive is a cancer risk.

graph of Low Veg and Fruit Diets

Why Is Awareness of These Established Risks Decreasing?

“When it comes to cancer, there are no guarantees,” Bender said. “But the science on lowering cancer risk has never been clearer.  Thousands of studies have been analyzed by AICR in our expert reports and the AICR/WCRF Continuous Update Project – the largest ongoing cancer prevention database in the world. These studies show that healthier lifestyles could cut cancer incidence by one-third.

“That’s about 400,000 cases every year, in the US alone, that never have to happen. But this message isn’t being heard.”

Bender noted that American public is bombarded daily by media messages that focus on the results of individual studies, not the overall scientific consensus. She worries that this information overload is causing people to throw up their hands.

The survey turned up other, smaller drops in awareness that also concern AICR experts. “Some of these decreases lie within the survey’s margin of error of 3 percentage points, or just outside of it. We’d like to see these numbers moving in the right direction, of course – but we’ll wait and see if we’re looking at temporary dips or a serious trend.”

Other proven risk factors that saw drops in awareness include:

  • Diets high in red meat (a cause of colon cancer): From 38 percent in 2009 to 35 percent today.
  • Obesity (a cause of 7 different cancers): From 51 percent in 2009 to 48 percent today.

So What ARE Americans Worried About?

The factors that Americans are focusing on represent a mix of legitimate risks (92 percent correctly identified tobacco use, which consistently scores highest on the survey; 84 percent cited excessive exposure to the sun) and risks for which research has yet to provide definitive answers (Food additives: 56 percent, Pesticide residue on produce: 72 percent).

“Instead of focusing on factors you can’t control,” said Bender, “we want Americans to learn more about what you can and do control, every day, at every meal. Eating smart and moving more make a big difference – big enough to save millions of lives across the globe every year. And that’s an empowering message on a day devoted to preventing cancer around the world.”

Visit our site to download (pdf) the full AICR 2013 Cancer Risk Awareness Survey report.

Published on February 4, 2013

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