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In Brief

Clinical news

Belief in cancer myths linked to health behaviours

By Bianca Nogrady
The idea that stress causes cancer is one of the most prevalent beliefs in mythical cancer causes, according to a population-based survey published in the European Journal of Cancer.

However, the survey of 1330 people in the UK also found that there was greater awareness of actual causes of cancer than of mythical cancer causes.

Data from the Attitudes and Beliefs about Cancer-UK Survey showed that 43% of respondents endorsed the mythical idea that stress caused cancer, whereas 42% believed the same of food additives, 35% believed exposure to electromagnetic frequencies caused cancer and just over one-third believed eating genetically-modified food caused cancer.

However, 88% of respondents believed that active smoking caused cancer, and 80% believed passive smoking caused cancer, but fewer than one-third identified HPV infection or low fruit and vegetable consumption as actual cancer causes.

Beliefs in actual and mythical cancer causes were also associated with particular sociodemographic and health behaviour characteristics.  For example, those who had better knowledge of actual cancer causes were more likely to be white, have a post-high-school qualification, be less likely to smoke and be more likely to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables daily. Those with greater awareness of mythical cancer causes were more likely to be young white men from the north of England.

Commenting, Cancer Council Australian CEO Professor Sanchia Aranda said people ‘have started to believe that everything causes cancer’.

‘Our concern is that this makes people feel disempowered to take steps to address the things that actually do cause cancer,’ she told Medicine Today.

She also pointed out that doctors were sometimes unwilling to have conversations with patients about cancer risk factors such as tobacco use, alcohol use and obesity. 

‘There is something generally difficult about talking about obesity and alcohol use in particular, which are three and four in the list of preventable causes of cancer in Australia.’
Eur J Cancer 2018; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejca.2018.03.029.