Public Release: 

Fatalistic beliefs about cancer cause many to ignore cancer prevention advice

American Association for Cancer Research

PHILADELPHIA -- If you feel that you are fated for cancer, your belief could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to a national survey of more than 6,000 U.S. adults published in the May issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a substantial number of American adults hold fatalistic beliefs about cancer and are correspondingly less likely to take basic steps to lower their cancer risk, such as exercising, quitting smoking and eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

The study, which analyzes data from the National Cancer Institute's Health Information National Trends Survey, is the first national survey in almost 20 years to assess Americans' knowledge about and attitudes toward cancer prevention. The findings have implications for cancer education efforts.

"Many Americans seem to feel afraid and helpless in regards to cancer, which may be exacerbated by conflicting news reports and a general lack of education on the causes and prevention of cancer," said Jeff Niederdeppe, Ph.D., professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "They say 'well, there is nothing much you can do about it' and, as our survey shows, they indeed do nothing about it."

The survey asked respondents if they agreed with three statements about cancer. About 47 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement that "It seems like almost everything causes cancer," while 27 percent agreed that "There's not much people can do to lower their chances of getting cancer." Moreover, 71.5 percent of American adults agreed that "There are so many recommendations about preventing cancer, it's hard to know which ones to follow."

People who maintained at least one of these three beliefs were less likely than others to exercise weekly and eat five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. People who believed that "it's hard to know" what to do were more likely to smoke. All three beliefs, the researchers say, were associated with lower levels of education.

Despite the ready availability of cancer information, the researchers conclude, there has been little progress in changing the belief that "everything causes cancer" in the last 20 years. According to the researchers, it is unclear whether and to what degree media coverage of cancer influences beliefs. While this study did not specifically address the news media's role in enforcing cancer fatalism, Niederdeppe believes that the constantly changing messages people get from the news are often confusing.

"Cancer is a difficult thing to talk about in the space of a single news story," Niederdeppe said. "Science values repetition, while the media values novelty. Those two concepts naturally butt heads, which can confuse people."

If conflicting news accounts of cancer prevention science are the cause of confusion, Niederdeppe says, educators ought to focus on developing simple, straightforward messages in teaching the general public about what they can do to prevent disease.


The mission of the American Association for Cancer Research is to prevent and cure cancer. Founded in 1907, AACR is the world's oldest and largest professional organization dedicated to advancing cancer research. The membership includes nearly 26,000 basic, translational, and clinical researchers; health care professionals; and cancer survivors and advocates in the United States and more than 70 other countries. AACR marshals the full spectrum of expertise from the cancer community to accelerate progress in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer through high-quality scientific and educational programs. It funds innovative, meritorious research grants. The AACR Annual Meeting attracts more than 17,000 participants who share the latest discoveries and developments in the field. Special Conferences throughout the year present novel data across a wide variety of topics in cancer research, treatment, and patient care. AACR publishes five major peer-reviewed journals: Cancer Research; Clinical Cancer Research; Molecular Cancer Therapeutics; Molecular Cancer Research; and Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. Its most recent publication, CR, is a magazine for cancer survivors, patient advocates, their families, physicians, and scientists. It provides a forum for sharing essential, evidence-based information and perspectives on progress in cancer research, survivorship, and advocacy.

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