Separating Cancer Fears from Facts
To mark World Cancer Day (February 4), AICR once again commissioned its Cancer Risk Awareness Survey. The survey has been run periodically since 2001 and asks respondents to select those factors they believe have “a significant effect on whether or not the average person develops cancer.”
But on a day devoted to debunking popular misconceptions about cancer across the globe, the survey has found that Americans are less aware that they can protect themselves against cancer than they were four years ago.
Fewer Americans realize, for example, that factors like alcohol, obesity, lack of physical activity, and poor diets have been shown to increase cancer risk. Instead, Americans continue to worry about factors over which they have no control and for which any link to cancer remains unclear (food additives, pesticide residue on produce).
“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.”
The survey gives AICR experts a sense of whether Americans are focusing on the factors that make a real difference in their cancer risk, and in three key areas, that news is not good:
- Awareness that diets low in vegetables and fruit increase cancer risk has experienced a steep drop, from 52 percent in 2009 to 43 percent today, though in previous years the percentage had been steadily increasing. 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.
- Only 38 percent of awareness now know that alcohol increases cancer risk, a drop from 46 percent in 2009. Alcohol is a cause of many cancers, including those of the breast, esophagus, and mouth.
- The steepest and most worrisome drop in awareness was associated with the subject of inactivity. In 2009, nearly half of Americans – 46 percent – were aware that a lack of regular physical activity increases cancer risk. Today, that figure has dropped 10 points to 36 percent – closer to 1 in 3.
Why Is Awareness of These Proven Risks Decreasing?
“When it comes to cancer, there are no guarantees,” Bender said. “But the science on lowering cancer risk has never been clearer….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.”
Trend or Blip?
Other proven risk factors that saw drops in awareness include diets high in red meat, which is a convincing cause of colon cancer, and obesity, which is strongly linked to 7 different cancers.
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 – for more on how workplaces are helping employees stop smoking, see our best practice profile in this issue, “Working Toward Smoker-Free Workplaces,” and 84 percent cited excessive exposure to the sun) and risks for which research has yet to provide definitive answers such as food additives and pesticide residue on produce.
Eighty-six percent of Americans also say they believe Inherited Predisposition/Cancer Genes have a significant effect on the average person’s risk of cancer, though the vast majority of cancers occur in individuals who do not possess BRCA1, APC, p53, or other “cancer genes.” Those who are born with these genes are at a higher risk – but a higher risk does not guarantee that the disease will occur. For these people, diets high in plant foods, regular physical activity, and a healthy weight are even more important, not less.
“Instead of obsessing over factors you can’t control,” said Bender, “we want Americans to learn more about the factors that you can and do control, every day, at every meal. They 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.”
Read or download the full report on the AICR 2013 Cancer Risk Awareness Survey can be read and downloaded on the AICR website (link).
For more information that helps place cancer myths and cancer facts in their proper context, read the AICR brochure The Facts About Cancer: Facts vs. Fears.