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Americans Can’t Separate Fears from Facts

For First Time, U.S. Awareness of
Several Key Cancer Risk Factors is Trending Downward

cancer myths get the factsWASHINGTON, DC — On a day devoted to debunking popular misconceptions about cancer across the globe, Americans are less aware that they can protect themselves against cancer than they were four years ago, according to the latest survey from the American Institute for Cancer Research.

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 he average person develops cancer.”

New figures from the AICR Cancer Risk Awareness Survey show that fewer 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 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.”

Alarming Downturns

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. Previously, awareness had been trending steadily upwards. 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 that reverses another upward trend. 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. 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.

Trend or Blip?

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 convincing cause of colon cancer): From 38 percent in 2009 to 35 percent today.
  • Obesity (strongly linked to 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).

In one case – the huge number (86 percent) of Americans who say they believe Inherited Predisposition/Cancer Genes have a significant effect on the average person’s risk of cancer – the survey response suggests that the American public harbors a fundamental and pervasive misapprehension about cancer’s origins.

The vast majority of cancers that occur – as many as 95 percent, by some estimates – occur in individuals who do not possess BRCA1, APC, p53 or other “cancer genes.” Those who are born with these genes are indeed at a higher risk – but they can still take steps to protect themselves. 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.

For more information that helps place cancer myths and cancer facts in their proper context, read the AICR brochure Cancer: Facts vs. Fears.


The AICR 2013 survey was conducted in December 2012 and involved 1,026 Americans aged 18 and older who were telephoned at random; approximately 30% were reached on cellphones. Margin of error +/- 3 percent. Raw survey data tables – including breakdowns by sex, age, income, metro status, race and political affiliation are available by request.


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