Separating Fact From Fiction
CR Magazine: Collaberation – Results

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What Do People Believe?

Statistics reveal global differences in cancer beliefs.

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By Lisa Seachrist Chiu

Separating Fact From Fiction

Around the world, people continue to believe cancer myths

By Lisa Seachrist Chiu


When it comes to cancer, believing in myths can be deadly. Yet a survey by the International Union Against Cancer (UICC) shows that people around the globe, in countries rich and poor, continue to believe myths about the causes of cancer.

Some of the findings may say more about human nature than about cancer awareness. Among the UICC’s findings was evidence that people inflate the cancer risk associated with environmental factors while minimizing the hazards associated with their own behaviors. For example, the survey demonstrated that people worldwide misperceive air pollution as a significant cancer risk, even though it is not.

There is a “relatively consistent bias” in people’s risk perceptions across countries of different income levels, says behavioral scientist Melanie Wakefield, the director of the Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer at the Cancer Council Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia, who led the UICC technical advisory group that designed the study. “People consider exposures that they cannot control, such as air pollution, as more risky for developing cancer than those that they can control, such as being overweight.”

The UICC undertook the survey to increase the collection and comparability of data on international knowledge, attitudes and behaviors related to cancer, and to help cancer organizations understand the data from their geographical regions. The first results from the survey, conducted by the Roy Morgan Research Co. and Gallup International affiliates, were unveiled in August 2008 at the UICC World Cancer Congress in Geneva—a biennial meeting of the global cancer community. The preliminary data represent nearly 30,000 people in 29 countries across the globe. Another 12 countries are finalizing their data collection and analysis.

Many beliefs about cancer risk are culture-specific. Only 14 percent of people living in two low-income countries could correctly identify that being overweight is a cancer risk factor. In high-income countries, 63 percent of respondents knew that being overweight increases cancer risk.

The survey also documented a significant difference in perceptions of the curability of cancer among affluent, middle-income and low-income countries, with 83 percent of people in high-income countries believing much could be done to cure cancer, compared with 61 percent in middle-income countries and 52 percent in low-income countries. Psychologist David Hill, the president of the UICC and the director of the Cancer Council Victoria, attributes the findings to the availability of care in those countries and to a lack of knowledge about what can now be done to treat cancer under the best conditions.

“An even stronger finding was that people who engaged in a risky behavior, such as smoking or frequent alcohol drinking, perceived there was less cancer risk from that behavior than those who did not engage in the behavior,” Wakefield says. People in affluent countries were more likely to downplay the cancer risks associated with drinking alcohol, while people in low- or middle-income countries were more likely to identify frequent alcohol consumption as a risk for cancer.

“This finding has something to do with people rationalizing their behavior,” Hill says, noting that the level of alcohol consumption influenced a person’s perceptions. For example, teetotalers were more likely to identify drinking alcohol as a risk factor for cancer. “The truth is there is a linear relationship between the amount of alcohol consumed and your risk for cancer,” Hill says.

“It’s fair to assume that what people know and what they think [about cancer] will affect how they will respond to a cancer diagnosis,” he adds. “Many of the countries we are talking about have a limited ability to treat cancer. Under any circumstance, prevention is cheaper than cure, but it is all the more important in countries that have limited ability to treat it.”