Mistaken belief in mythical causes of cancer is rife according to new research jointly funded by Cancer Research UK and published today (Thursday) in the European Journal of Cancer*.
Researchers at University College London (UCL) and the University of Leeds surveyed 1,330 people in England and found that 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 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."
Dr Lion Shahab from UCL 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."
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."
For media enquiries contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8300 or, out of hours, on 07050 264 059.
Notes to editor:
*Lion Shahab, Jennifer A. McGowan, Jo Waller and Samuel G. Smith. Prevalence of beliefs about actual and mythical causes of cancer and their association with socio-demographic and health-related characteristics: findings from a national cross-sectional survey. European Journal of Cancer
Embargoed weblink: https:/
This work was supported by a Cancer Research UK/Bupa Foundation Innovation Award
** Brown et al. The fraction of cancer attributable to known risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the UK overall in 2015. British Journal of Cancer. DOI: 10.1038/s41416-018-0029-6
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University of Leeds
The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK, with more than 33,000 students from more than 150 different countries, and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities.
We are a top ten university for research and impact power in the UK, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, and are in the top 100 for academic reputation in the QS World University Rankings 2018.
Additionally, the University was awarded a Gold rating by the Government's Teaching Excellence Framework in 2017, recognising its 'consistently outstanding' teaching and learning provision. Twenty-six of our academics have been awarded National Teaching Fellowships - more than any other institution in England, Northern Ireland and Wales - reflecting the excellence of our teaching. http://www.
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About UCL (University College London)
UCL was founded in 1826. We were the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to open up university education to those previously excluded from it, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. We are among the world's top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has over 39,000 students from 150 countries and over 12,500 staff. Our annual income is more than £1 billion.