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Patients have a poor understanding of the causes of cancer

Freddy Sitas, Director of Research, Cancer Council NSW, writes:

Myths and cancer can go together hand in hand. Not surprisingly, in a complex disease that horribly impacts upon, and cuts short so many lives, there remain many questions around cancer causes. Despite cancer research increasingly unveiling more about the ‘big C’, we still see myths thrive.

What effect does this have? Myths are just part and parcel of the great unknown – right?

Unfortunately myths are undermining cancer prevention, with Australian patients placing stress about money and the mortgage above established causes of the disease such as smoking, obesity, and family history.

New Cancer Council NSW research[i] published in Cancer Causes and Control has revealed these findings, whilst showing that half of all patients didn’t know what caused their cancer and a quarter thought the disease was unpreventable.

This is contrary to the fact that up to a third of all cancers can actually be prevented through simple lifestyle choices like regular exercise, a healthy diet and quitting smoking.

Certainly stress is linked to several health problems, but it does not cause cancer.  What it can do is affect people’s behaviour, so that they engage in more risky activities like smoking and drinking and eating unhealthily. It’s not the stress we can necessarily change but our reaction to it.

If as individuals, we continue to focus on stress as a cause, it potentially takes away our focus on known cancer prevention factors. That’s not good as we want people choosing fact over fiction and doing things that are more likely to make a difference to cutting their cancer risk.

The research also revealed a gulf in the opinions of cancer patients depending on whether or not their type of cancer had a well known cause.  Breast cancer patients were 60 per cent more likely to blame stress than lung cancer patients who understood the link to smoking.

The link between smoking and cancer is now ingrained in most of us. But when there is a gap in our knowledge, it appears we tend to grasp to any explanation. It’s easier than having unknowns in our lives.

So people wanting to cut their cancer risk are better off making some really simple lifestyle choices, such as keeping fit and active, avoiding smoking, restricting junk food, and knowing their family history for hereditary conditions.

How can we banish myths and generate a better understanding on what causes cancer?

The answer is twofold; more research and better communication of cancer causes and prevention. Many organisations, including Cancer Council are investing a lot of time and money into research. We do that part well.

What this study shows us is the importance of evidence-based prevention messages, to replace these myths. But the trick is to take the science and make it palatable, interesting and relevant to everyday people. Also as health professionals we need to work together to distribute these messages, so prevention messages are even more part and parcel of visiting the doctor.

Possible? I hope so. Watch this space…


[i] This research was a collaborative effort. Thank you to Simon Willcox who completed this research as part of his Master of Public Health (Honours) and Bernard Stewart, University of NSW.

***

For those wanting more details of the study, the abstract follows:

Objective

To analyze Australian cancer patients’ beliefs about factors contributing to the development of their cancer.

Methods

As part of a case–control study (The Cancer Council NSW Cancer, Lifestyle and Evaluation of Risk Study), a total of 2,857 cancer patients (open to all types of cancer) were surveyed and via an open-ended question, were asked to specify factors they think contributed to the development of their cancer. Qualitative analysis and categorical techniques were used to analyze the data.

Results

About half, 53%, of patients specified at least one contributing factor. The odds of a person specifying a contributing factor increased with time period since diagnosis (p = 0.0006). Patients most frequently specified, respectively: “Stress” (15.4%), “Genetics/hereditary” (10.9%) and “Smoking” (6.2%). Among factors specified the largest proportion (24.1%) was perceived to be “Non-modifiable.”

Conclusion

Cancer patients specified a broad range of factors and agents to which their disease may be attributed. Some of these were poorly correlated with epidemiological rankings of attributable risk factors. The role of psychosocial and genetic factors was overstated. Misconceptions regarding the causes of cancer are a key consideration of health professionals when devising communication strategies around cancer prevention.
***

Update, 23 Aug
Interesting to see the Cancer Council is using YouTube to talk about the research
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-Yempj-J0c[/youtube]

Comments 3

  1. AJinDarwin says:

    There is SO much information on causes and treatment of cancer that its hardly surprising that patients get confused. Recently for instance, a University in NSW idetified a strong correlation between even moderate alcohol consumption and gettin breat cancer, but you will still have medical professions stating that the old furphy of moderate wine drinking is ok. Let me ask you, in the face of conflicting information recently researched would you continue to drink post diagnosis?

  2. Jay Nunga says:

    There seems to be a constant stream of reasons for people getting cancer, and it seems, to me at least, that there are more things that cause cancer than don’t. Pollution of our environment, eg: mercury from coal fired power stations, cars and trucks etc, chemicals used in agriculture, are some things that have not been looked into enough, as causes of cancer. Researchers seem to concentrate on individual behaviour, rather than the environmental causes. Its easier to blame the individual than the corporate body.

    My own Mother died at aged 48, of breast cancer. She did not smoke or drink alcohol, and was actually considered a “health nut” because of her insistence on eating a healthy diet. Yet she still died of cancer, and no-one has yet given a satisfactory reason for this, (no-one on her side of the family had ever had breast cancer so genetic disposition was not a big factor). She did, however, live in an area of coal mining and coal fired power stations, in fact my Father worked at a coal fired power station. These factors may be incidental to her death, but as there was a large number of cancers, (more than the Australian average), in this area, it is certainly something to look at.

    I wont hold my breath waiting though, it seems in Australia that the large mining companies, and the politicians that are in bed with them, do not want to upset them by funding research into the effects of their “business” on the people or environment. Much easier to blame the victim.

    Jay

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#IHMayDay (all years)
#IHMayDay 2014
#IHMayDay15
#IHMayday16
#IHMayDay17
#IHMayDay18
#LoveRural 2014
Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
Oceania EcoHealth Symposium 2013
PHAA conference 2013
2014 conferences
#IPCHIV14
AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
CRANAplus conference 2014
Cultural Solutions - Healing Foundation forum 2014
Lowitja Institute Continuous Quality Improvement conference 2014
National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
Rural & Remote Health Scientific Symposium 2014
2015 conferences
#CPHCEforum
#CRANAplus15
#HSR15
#NRHC15
#OTCC15
Population Health Congress 2015
2016 conferences
#AHHAsim16
#AHMRC16
#ANROWS2016
#ATSISPEP
#AusCanIndigenousWellness
#cphce2016
#CPHCEforum16
#CRANAplus2016
#IAMRA2016
#LowitjaConf2016
#PreventObesity16
#TowardsRecovery
#VMIAC16
#WearablesCEH
#WICC2016
2017 conferences
#17APCC
#ACEM17
#AIDAconf2017
#BTH20
#CATSINaM17
#ClimateHealthStrategy
#IAHAConf17
#IDS17
#LBQWHC17