Global survey reveals mistaken beliefs about cancer

In collaboration with the Press Association

A new survey has highlighted a number of mistaken beliefs about the causes of cancer which must be addressed so that people know how to reduce their risk of the disease.

Presented at the International Union Against Cancer (UICC) World Cancer Congress in Geneva, the survey questioned 29,925 people in 29 countries and identified a number of key areas where misconceptions could be addressed with potentially lifesaving consequences.

In particular, researchers found that many people tend to overestimate the threat from environmental factors - which actually have relatively little impact on cancer risk - while underestimating the dangers of behaviours that greatly increase a person's risk.

The proportion of people who wrongly thought that alcohol does not increase the risk of cancer varied from 42 per cent in high-income countries to 26 per cent in middle-income countries and just 15 per cent in low-income countries.

More people in high-income countries thought that not eating enough fruits and vegetables increases cancer risk (59 per cent) than thought that alcohol intake increases risk (51 per cent), even though there is more evidence for the latter.

In addition, people in high-income countries were more likely to view stress and air pollution as cancer risks than alcohol, even though stress is not a known risk factor and air pollution is only a minor risk factor compared with alcohol.

The survey also found that 48 per cent of people in low- and middle-income countries thought that 'not much can be done' to cure cancer, compared with just 17 per cent in high-income countries.

And people in all countries were more prepared to accept factors that were out of their control - such as air pollution - as being cancer risks than things that were within their control, such as being overweight.

Dr David Hill, president-elect of UICC and director of the Cancer Council Victoria in Melbourne, said that the survey findings should be used to inform education campaigns.

He said that the survey highlights "big unheard messages" and that the data could help to highlight where additional efforts are needed.

"We know that people need to be given a reason why they should change," he claimed.

"They need to be shown how to change; they need to be given resources or support to change; they need to remember to change and they need positive reinforcement for changing.

"Many of these principles can be applied in designing education programmes to encourage and support behaviour change."