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Survey: Many People Hold Misperceptions about Cancer Risks and Treatment (dateline October 31, 2008)

In a large survey of people from 29 countries, researchers found that many misunderstand cancer risks and the chances of successful treatment. The survey revealed some surprising findings, including that many tend not to regard alcohol as a cancer risk factor and instead tend to overplay the risks associated with stress and pollution. In addition, people from lower income countries tend to believe that nothing can be done to treat cancer and that doctors alone should make treatment decisions. The researchers believe that the survey highlights key areas of focus for cancer education campaigns.

The survey was conducted by Roy Morgan Research and Gallup International on behalf of the International Union Against Cancer, a non-governmental organization with members from more than 100 countries. The results were announced in August 2008 at the International Union Against Cancer's World Cancer Congress in Geneva, Switzerland.

The survey included interviews with 29,925 people in 29 countries over the past year. Results were divided by country incomes. For the purposes of the survey, high-income countries included, among others, Australia, Austria, Canada, Israel, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Middle-income countries included, among others, China, Mexico, Turkey, and Venezuela. The low-income countries included in the survey were Kenya and Nigeria.

The results of the survey revealed that people tended to overplay environmental factors, such as stress and pollution, as risk factors for developing cancer and underplay other established factors such as heavy weight.

The results tended to vary by country income level as well. For example, people in high-income countries were the least likely to believe that drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer, even though according to the International Union Against Cancer, alcohol is an established cancer risk factor. Instead, those from high-income countries tended to believe that the lack of fruits and vegetables in the diet was more of a cancer risk, which the researchers said is less supported by scientific research. People from lower income countries, by contrast, placed more of an emphasis on alcohol as a cancer risk factor.

People from high-income countries also perceived stress and pollution as higher cancer risk factors than alcohol consumption, even though the researchers said that these factors carry minor risks when compared to alcohol.

The survey also revealed misperceptions about cancer treatment. People from low-income countries in particular were pessimistic about cancer diagnoses. According to the survey results, 48% of people from low-income countries said that "not much can be done" to cure cancer or that they didn't know whether anything could be done to treat the disease.

Surprisingly, 75% of people from low-income countries also said that doctors should make all treatment decisions associated with a cancer diagnosis, with only 8% responding that the doctor and patient should make joint treatment decisions and 9% saying that the patient should decide the best course of treatment.

The researchers said that the survey will help develop cancer education campaigns tailored to specific countries and designed to correct misperceptions about cancer. "We know that people need to be given a reason why they should change. 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 programs to encourage and support behavior change," stated Dr. David Hill, President-Elect of the International Union Against Cancer in a news release.

Additional Resources and References

  • The August 27, 2008 International Union Against Cancer news release, "Global survey highlights need for cancer prevention campaigns to correct misbeliefs," was published on the organization's website at