A new report from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) shows that a large percentage of the United States population remains confused about which lifestyle factors increase the risk of cancer and which do not.
While a large majority of the public knows that smoking and sun exposure increase cancer risk, only 50 percent or fewer know that key risk factors like overweight, physical inactivity, alcohol, and processed meat increase risk. In addition, many lifestyle factors with unproven or tenuous links to cancer were identified by high percentages as proven cancer risk factors. Between 52 – 60 percent of people incorrectly stated that genetically modified foods (GMOs), artificial sweeteners, hormones in beef, and food additives impact a person’s chances of developing cancer. Good evidence does not support these links.
Based on a phone survey of a nationally representative sample of around 1,000 people, the AICR report is the eighth in a series, with the first published in 2001.
Perhaps the most surprising finding in the report is the continued low-level understanding that overweight and obesity increase cancer risk. While there has been overall improvement since 2001, when just 35 percent of respondents identified the link between weight and cancer, the percentage has bounced around the 50 percent mark since 2009, seemingly stalled. Overweight causes over 130,000 cancers a year and increases the risk of over ten different cancers.
Studies show that half of all cancers could be prevented through healthy behaviors. And the list of key steps that lower cancer risk is generally straightforward and relatively short. We highlight them in our Eight Ways to Prevent Cancer series (see figure), and AICR, the National Cancer Institute, and other such organizations have similar publications.
As the new report suggests, to help people realize these benefits, we need to continue to get the word out on these important prevention messages. But our efforts must reach beyond the public and also include institutions throughout society – state/local governments, schools, healthcare systems, insurers, and workplaces. For knowledge to transform into sustained action, reinforcement is key. Our friends, our workplaces, our healthcare providers, and our community each play a key role in helping us meet our health goals.
From knowledge, to action, to impact. Together, we can make this happen.