World Cancer Day 2015: Survey Shows Americans Don't Understand Cancer Risks

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According to a survey released to mark World Cancer Day by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), many Americans are unaware of steps they can take to lower their risk of cancer.

The results come from AICR's periodically commissioned Cancer Risk Awareness Survey, which asks people to select factors they believe have "a significant effect on whether or not the average person develops cancer."

This year's results show that few Americans realize that factors like alcohol, obesity, poor diet and lack of physical activity are risk factors that increase the chances of developing cancer.

Rather than focus on these risks, Americans 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. "These latest numbers are chilling."

How Many Americans Know the Real Risks?

  • -- 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 and fruits to reduced risk for many cancers including those of the colon, stomach and pancreas.
  • -- Only 43 percent of Americans know that alcohol usage can cause cancer, an increase of five percent since the 2013 survey. Alcohol can be a cause of many cancers, including those of the breast, esophagus and mouth.
  • -- 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 2013 survey.

Despite these findings, at least two messages regarding cancer are being heard by Americans; namely that carrying excess body fat boosts one's risk, and that being inactive does the same.

Americans Focus on Unclear Risks

While 94 percent of those questioned said that tobacco use was a risk factor for cancer and 84 percent said excessive sun exposure was also a risk, a surprising number of Americans focused on unclear risks in their responses. The following have yet to be proven as definite risks by cancer research:

  • Pesticide residue on produce (74 percent)
  • Food additives (62 percent)
  • Genetically modified foods (56 percent)
  • Stress (55 percent)
  • Hormones in beef (55 percent)

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

Bender noted that the American public is bombarded daily by media messages that focus on the results of individual studies, not scientific consensus. She worries how this "information overload" will affect the public.

"When it comes to cancer, there are no guarantees," said Bender. "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."

Source: AICR

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