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February 4, 2015 | 4 minute read

New Survey: U.S. Beliefs About Cancer Risk Put Fear Before Facts

Awareness of Key Cancer Risk Factors Alarmingly Low,
While More Americans Than Ever Cling to Unproven Links

WASHINGTON, DC — More Americans blame cancer on things like food additives, genetically modified foods, stress and beef hormones than realize there are steps they can take to lower their risk, according to a survey released today from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).

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.”

The 2015 AICR Cancer Risk Awareness Survey shows that few Americans realize 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 either little or no control (genes, for example) or for which the link to cancer remains unclear (food additives).

“Every two years, we look to this survey to gauge how well Americans are putting the news they’re constantly hearing about cancer research and prevention into the proper context,” said AICR’s Associate Director of Nutrition Programs Alice Bender, MS, RDN, “and these latest numbers are chilling.”

Fewer Than Half of Americans Know the Real Risks

The survey gives experts a sense of whether Americans are focusing on the factors that make a proven difference in cancer risk, and today, that news is decidedly mixed:

  • Fewer than half of Americans (42 percent) are now aware that diets low in vegetables and fruit increase cancer risk. This number has trended downward since 2009, when it stood at 52 percent. Consistent evidence links diets high in vegetables, fruits and other plant foods to reduced risk for many cancers including those of the colon, stomach and mouth.
  • Only 43 percent of Americans now know that alcohol increases cancer risk, an increase of five percentage points since the 2013 survey. Alcohol is a cause of many cancers, including those of the breast, esophagus and mouth.
  • And only about 1 in 3 Americans (35 percent) realize that diets high in red meat have been convincingly linked to colon cancer. This figure has not changed since the survey was last conducted in 2013.

There are encouraging signs that at least two evidence-based messages about cancer risk are being heard.

  • Awareness that carrying excess body fat is a cancer risk factor is rising. Today, just over half of Americans (52 percent) realize that obesity and overweight impact their cancer risk, a rise of 4 percentage points,
  • Awareness that being inactive increases cancer risk jumped 6 percentage points, from 36 percent in 2013 to 42 percent today.

So What ARE Americans Worried About?

The factors that Americans are focusing on represent a mix of legitimate risks (94 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 (pesticide residue on produce: 74 percent; food additives: 62 percent; genetically modified foods: 56 percent; stress: 55 percent; hormones in beef: 54 percent).

“Instead of focusing on factors that you can’t always control,” said Bender, “we want Americans to learn more about the factors that you can and do control, every day.”

Bender noted that the 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.

“When it comes to cancer, there are no guarantees,” she said. “But the science on lowering cancer risk has never been clearer. Thousands of studies have been analyzed by AICR in our Continuous Update Project reports – the largest ongoing analysis of cancer prevention research in the world. These studies show that a healthy diet, regular activity and healthy weight could cut cancer incidence by one-third.

“That’s about 340,000 cases every year, in the US alone, that never have to happen. But this message isn’t being heard and it could save lives.”

Read or download the full embargoed report on the 2015 AICR Cancer Risk Awareness Survey (PDF). (Password: prevent50) The report will go live at prevent50.org on Feb 4.

NOTE: The AICR 2015 survey was conducted in December 2014 by SSRS (www.ssrs.com) and involved 1,018 Americans aged 18 and older who were telephoned at random, 509 of which were reached on cell phones. Survey was conducted in English and Spanish. Margin of error +/- 3 percent. Raw survey data tables – including breakdowns by sex, age, income, metro status, race and political affiliation – as well as a full methodology report are available by request.

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