AICR’s ninth national Cancer Risk Awareness Survey found an alarming lack of awareness for several of the most important risk factors for cancer. Less than half of Americans recognize that drinking alcohol, diets high in red meat, diets low in vegetables, fruits and fiber and insufficient physical activity all have a clear link to cancer development.
At first glance, the survey results reveal a lack of knowledge and awareness of evidence-based cancer risk factors. As I look closer, however, I get a sense of overwhelm and information fatigue. That sense of overwhelm is getting in the way of people’s ability to take action to reduce their cancer risk.
Cancer is among the most feared diseases and research points to several modifiable lifestyle factors that can be effective in cancer prevention. I have always talked about taking one step at a time, because every little step towards developing healthier habits counts for cancer prevention. Whether you’re cutting back on sugar-sweetened drinks or swapping a bag of chips for an apple, those decisions make a difference.
So why are more of us not acting on the power of prevention? Why are we not incorporating well-founded recommendations for reducing cancer risk into our lifestyles?
I see “overwhelm” as an intimidatingly high wall that sits in the way between concern and action.
Why the Overwhelm?
That sense of overwhelm can come from many sources. Fortunately, taking a brief pause to put them into perspective could help lighten the load that’s keeping you from incorporating cancer prevention recommendations into your everyday life.
It won’t make a difference.
Are you under the impression that any steps you might take are too small to matter compared to pollution, asbestos, radon, hormones in food, artificial sweeteners and food additives? The Survey found that most Americans consider each of those factors as important cancer risk factors instead of the lifestyle factors backed by scientific evidence. Some of those factors don’t even have a link to cancer risk that’s supported by strong evidence. Others do show some influence on cancer risk, but it’s a much smaller role than lifestyle.
It’s too hard.
This is a different kind of overwhelm, and often stems from the thought that taking the necessary steps to reduce cancer risk requires ultra-healthy habits that don’t seem realistic amidst all that you’ve got going on in your life. But there’s fantastic news. Despite all the books and websites marketed to play on the perspective that “perfect” is needed, that’s not what research shows.
Research consistently shows that the biggest difference in cancer risk is between people who are the farthest from recommended habits and people who’ve managed to build habits that are one step up.
For many habits, like including lots of vegetables and fruits and being physically active each day, cancer risk gets even lower as people do more. But some improvement in healthy habits is clearly more protective than none.
If “high” levels of protective choices don’t seem doable for you right now, don’t let that stand in the way of “better.” To make a difference in cancer risk, aim for progress, not perfection.
I don’t know where to focus.
There are lots of ways to make our eating habits more healthful than today’s average American diet. But if you want to make a difference in reducing your cancer risk, the hard work has already been done – evaluating and distilling the best available evidence on what will be most effective. That’s what you find in AICR Cancer Prevention Recommendations.
Do you know what those top steps are? Only two were identified by more than half of the respondents in the latest AICR survey. Less than half of respondents identified the rest. In this survey:
• 53% of people knew that overweight or obesity and processed meat consumption affect cancer risk.
• Only 38-45% recognized drinking alcohol, diets low in vegetables and fruits, diets low in fiber or insufficient physical activity as factors that increase cancer risk.
Be Part of the Solution: Beat Overwhelm
Overwhelm can be contagious.
When everyone around you voices beliefs that cancer risk comes mainly from sources out of your control, it strengthens a group norm of not taking action to promote good health. When everyone you know talks about a healthy lifestyle as some perfection-seeking craziness that has no place in the average person’s life, it makes everyone less likely to take steps that could actually make a difference.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Start with where you are now. Compare your current habits to the steps identified in AICR’s Cancer Prevention Recommendations. That’s your starting point. Set priorities by choosing just one or two changes that would make the biggest difference.
Check out AICR’s newly updated interactive online tool, Cancer Health Check. It will prompt you to answer simple questions about your current lifestyle habits, and then give instant feedback. You’ll see how closely you already follow the evidence-based recommendations, and get ideas for a few basic steps you might take to more closely meet them.
Celebrate your wins!
When perfection is not the goal, few improvements we make seem worth celebrating. As we lose enthusiasm, it’s easy to stop working on developing new habits and soon we’ve drifted back to old habits. On the contrary, behavior change experts call for recognizing each small step as a mark of success. This can make a change more likely to last, and can gradually lead to additional positive changes.
Shine a light for others.
We’re in this together. Refuse to join in conversations that suggest healthy has to be unrealistic. As other people see you finding ways to make small changes for a healthy lifestyle, they will see that change is possible. Other people need to find the changes that work for them, but you can demonstrate that we each can find a few changes practical for us. That nourishes everyone.
In our family, circle of friends and community, we must not wait to celebrate big accomplishments. We need to celebrate small, but steady, efforts at trying a new strategy for a healthy lifestyle. By making choices that align with AICR’s Cancer Prevention Recommendations, and setting priorities based on where we are now, we can each learn how to live healthier lives, beat “overwhelm” and make a difference in reducing the cancer burden in our country.