Misconceptions about cancer abound
August 6, 2008
Nothing strikes fear in the minds of people today like being told they have cancer. Cancer tops Alzheimer’s disease, heart attacks and even terrorism as the one thing people fear most, according to a survey published last year by Cancer Research UK. The public’s fear of cancer exceeds its combined fears of dying in car accidents, in plane crashes or by murder, the survey found.
Why is cancer so frightening? Is this fear based partly on false beliefs?
It’s true that cancer often is a fatal disease – it’s the second-leading cause of death in El Dorado County, as it is across America. It’s also true that cancer sometimes occurs out of the blue in otherwise healthy people, demanding unimaginable courage and strength.
But not all cancers are fatal, nor are they all so capricious. Up to half of all cancers could be prevented by changes in lifestyle, such as not smoking, maintaining a healthy body weight, eating a balanced diet, avoiding sun exposure and getting cancer-screening tests at the recommended times.
Most people don’t know that. Perhaps if people knew more about cancer, they would fear cancer less and do more to prevent it.
Mistaken beliefs about cancer, especially about what does and what doesn’t cause it, are common, according to a study published last year by the American Cancer Society. The researchers asked nearly 1,000 American adults to decide whether certain statements about cancer were true or false.
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Fewer than half of the respondents correctly identified these statements as false:
— Living in a polluted city is a greater risk for lung cancer than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. (Fact: Smoking is a far worse risk factor than air pollution.)
— Some injuries can cause cancer later in life. (Fact: This outdated belief long has been proven false.)
— Electronic devices, such as cell phones, can cause cancer in people who use them. (Fact: The overwhelming evidence to date shows no association with cancer.)
Large percentages of respondents expressed other inaccurate beliefs. These included the notion that behaviors in young adulthood have little effect on the risk of cancer later in life, that smokers who quit don’t really reduce their odds of cancer, that smoking low-tar cigarettes actually lowers the risk of lung cancer, and that personal-hygiene products such as shampoo and deodorant can cause cancer. A few respondents even thought underwire bras cause breast cancer!
Such misconceptions about the causes of cancer undoubtedly create unnecessary fears about the disease. Worse, they may even distract the public’s attention from the real causes of cancer that everyone should avoid, from tobacco to junk food to excess sun.
Most surprisingly, two-thirds of respondents falsely believed that the risk of dying from cancer in the United States is increasing. While the cancer death rate is falling less precipitously than the rate of death from heart disease, it has been dropping steadily since the early 1990s. That fact alone should temper the fears that death from cancer is stalking us all.
It’s important to take cancer seriously, but it’s also important to make sure you get your cancer information from trustworthy sources, such as your doctor. Other good resources include the American Cancer Society and federal agencies such as the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
– Jason Eberhart-Phillips, M.D., is the El Dorado County health officer. He can be reached at email@example.com.