Mistaken belief in mythical causes of cancer is rife, according to research from the University College London (UCL) and the University of Leeds. The findings show that out of 1,330 people in England more than 40% wrongly thought that stress (43%) and food additives (42%) caused cancer.
A third incorrectly believed that electromagnetic frequencies (35%) and eating GM food (34%) were risk factors, while 19% thought microwave ovens and 15% said drinking from plastic bottles caused cancer despite a lack of good scientific evidence.
Among the proven causes of cancer, 88% of people correctly selected smoking, 80% picked passive smoking and 60% said sunburn.
Belief in mythical causes of cancer did not mean a person was more likely to have risky lifestyle habits. But those who had better knowledge of proven causes were more likely not to smoke.
Dr Lion Shahab (UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health) said: “People’s beliefs are so important because they have an impact on the lifestyle choices they make. Those with better awareness of proven causes of cancer were more likely not to smoke and to eat more fruit and vegetables.”
Dr Samuel Smith from the University of Leeds said: “It’s worrying to see so many people endorse risk factors for which there is no convincing evidence.
“Compared to past research it appears the number of people believing in unproven causes of cancer has increased since the start of the century which could be a result of changes to how we access news and information through the internet and social media.
“It’s vital to improve public education about the causes of cancer if we want to help people make informed decisions about their lives and ensure they aren’t worrying unnecessarily.”
Clare Hyde from Cancer Research UK said: “Around four in 10 cancer cases could be prevented through lifestyle changes so it’s crucial we have the right information to help us separate the wheat from the chaff.
“Smoking, being overweight and overexposure to UV radiation from the sun and sunbeds are the biggest preventable causes of cancer.
“There is no guarantee against getting cancer but by knowing the biggest risk factors we can stack the odds in our favour to help reduce our individual risk of the disease, rather than wasting time worrying about fake news.”
This work was supported by a Cancer Research UK/Bupa Foundation Innovation Award.
Background: Literature on population awareness about actual causes of cancer is growing but comparatively little is known about the prevalence of people’s belief concerning mythical causes of cancer. This study aimed to estimate the prevalence of these beliefs and their association with socio-demographic characteristics and health behaviours.
Methods: A survey containing validated measures of beliefs about actual and mythical cancer causes and health behaviours (smoking, alcohol consumption, physical activity, fruit and vegetable consumption, overweight) was administered to a representative English population sample (N = 1330).
Results: Awareness of actual causes of cancer (52% accurately identified; 95% confidence interval [CI] 51–54) was greater than awareness of mythical cancer causes (36% accurately identified; 95% CI 34–37; P < 0.01). The most commonly endorsed mythical cancer causes were exposure to stress (43%; 95% CI 40–45), food additives (42%; 95% CI 39–44) and electromagnetic frequencies (35%; 95% CI 33–38). In adjusted analysis, greater awareness of actual and mythical cancer causes was independently associated with younger age, higher social grade, being white and having post-16 qualifications. Awareness of actual but not mythical cancer causes was associated with not smoking and eating sufficient fruit and vegetables.
Conclusions: Awareness of actual and mythical cancer causes is poor in the general population. Only knowledge of established risk factors is associated with adherence to behavioural recommendations for reducing cancer risk.
Lion Shahab, Jennifer A McGowan, Jo Waller, Samuel G Smith