Risky Behavior
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By Alanna Kennedy

Risky Behavior

Many Americans are unconvinced about cancer risk reduction

By Alanna Kennedy


According to the American Cancer Society, more than a half million people died of cancer last year. What’s worse, many of those deaths could have been prevented: In the U.S. this year, about 30 percent of cancer deaths will be caused by tobacco use and nearly a third will be related to obesity and physical inactivity, the organization estimates. Yet despite evidence that many cancers are preventable, a recent study found that many Americans are skeptical about cancer prevention.

Published in the May issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, the telephone survey of more than 6,000 people found that nearly 72 percent of adults believe that with so many recommendations about cancer prevention, it’s hard to know which ones to follow. In fact, almost half of adults surveyed think nearly everything causes cancer and about a quarter say there isn’t much they can do to lower their risk.

The findings were surprising, says Jeff Niederdeppe, the study’s lead investigator and a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “One out of four Americans, despite what we know about smoking and obesity, think there is not much they can do to reduce their risk.”

These fatalistic attitudes can have consequences. People who hold these beliefs are less likely to engage in activities that have been shown to reduce cancer risk, such as eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, maintaining a lower body weight, getting regular exercise and, of course, not smoking, says Niederdeppe. “Cancer is a word that evokes fear in a lot of people. A little bit of fear can motivate … but if people are too fearful, they can become paralyzed and choose to do nothing.”

“The public needs to know they can reduce their risk,” says Carolyn Aldigé, the president of the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation in Alexandria, Va. However, she says, “The simple messages aren’t getting out there.”  

With the conflicting information people hear in the news, it’s easy to see why they might get confused about cancer prevention. For instance, previous research has suggested lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes, could lower a man’s risk of developing prostate cancer. But this year, a study in the May issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention reported that lycopene does not prevent prostate cancer. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported in the July 10 Journal of the National Cancer Institute that there was only a limited link between lycopene and cancer risk reduction.

“When research comes out, it’s very exciting, so it gets a lot of press,” explains Christine Ambrosone, a molecular epidemiologist at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. But when it comes to prevention, it’s important that patients not focus on every small study that’s reported, she says.

Health care professionals can help stem the tide of confusion by talking to their patients about prevention, says Niederdeppe. “They are in a unique position to communicate about cancer prevention—not only do they follow the science, but they know the patient’s medical history.”
 

To learn how to evaluate science coverage in the news, check out the feature story “From Mice to Men” in this issue of CR.