A LARGE PORTION of the Irish population is misinformed about the real risk factors for cancer with many “shockingly unaware” of proven threats.
A national survey carried out by Breakthrough Cancer Research also showed that one in five adults believe that nothing can be done to prevent cancer if they have a family history of the disease. The importance of genetics in terms of risk was greatly overestimated by those interviewed for the research.
A blow to the breast, stress and the use of mobile phones and aerosols were all incorrectly listed as potential risk factors for developing cancer. Proven threats, including obesity, the position of fat in the body, age, sunlight, alcohol and lifestyle were not on many people’s risk radars.
Dr Aoife Ryan from University College Cork, where the research to assess public awareness of cancer issues was undertaken, said the results were “astonishing”.
Dr Derek Power, a medical oncologist at Mercy and Cork University Hospitals added, “While most surveyed were aware of classic risk factors such as smoking and poor diet, there are a lot of misconceptions. We hope that by sharing these common misunderstandings and informing the public about proven cancer risks and preventable measures, we can help people to make lifestyle choices that will reduce their risk of developing the disease.”
According to World Health Organisation predictions, Ireland could experience a 72 per cent rise in cancer diagnoses by 2030. However, it believes that 40 per cent of all cancer deaths could be prevented with appropriate food, nutrition, physical activity and body fat. Only 20 per cent of people surveyed were aware of the preventable nature of the disease.
Breakdown of results
Altogether, 748 respondents were questioned about their knowledge of cancer risks. About 80 per cent of the public are concerned about developing cancer with 19 per cent incorrectly believing that if the illness is in their family, there is nothing they can do to reduce personal risk.
The role of genetics is also grossly exaggerated in the public’s mind with a quarter of those surveyed stating that more than 50 per cent of cancers are inherited, while more than half believed that 10-20 per cent of cancers are inherited. In reality, research has shown that only three to five per cent of cancers are truly inherited.
Just one third of respondents knew that obesity is a risk factor for cancer, with the same percentage incorrectly thinking the location of fat on the body is not important. However, scientific evidence has already shown that this is the most important risk factor with an apple-shape increasing the likelihood of developing cancer.
Respondents incorrectly listed the the following as possible causes despite a lack of scientific evidence:
- wearing a tight bra (29 per cent);
- a blow to the breast (48 per cent);
- stress (92 per cent).
Both mobile phones and cleaning agents/aerosols were listed as risky by up to 70 per cent of those surveyed. The same number believe constipation increases risk but this may be confused as a symptom of bowel cancer. About 11 per cent cited luck as a factor in avoiding cancer.
Asked about reducing the risk of developing cancer, 27 per cent believed detox diets were helpful and 64 per cent said organic foods offered protection. However, the majority were aware of the links between red or processed meats and cancer. They were also aware of the risk posed by too much salt.
Messages about red wine and its protective nature appear to have been mixed up with many being misinformed that it has protective qualities in terms of cancer – and not just heart disease.