Cancer Risk Survey Finds Americans Put Fear Before Facts

Making lifestyle changes is far more important to reducing cancer risk than avoiding food additives or worrying about genetics. But a survey by the American Institute of Cancer Research finds most people in the United States worry more about the things for which risks are unproven, while overlooking risks for which the science is clear.

Cancer can be prevented through lifestyle changes such as more exercise and plant-based diets, but instead of taking these steps, more Americans believe they can get cancer from genetically modified foods, beef hormones or stress.

Those are the findings of the 2015 survey by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), which yesterday released the findings of its most recent effort to gauge what Americans believe about cancer risk. AICR has conducted the survey periodically since 2001.

Comparatively few Americans are aware that factors such as obesity, alcohol consumption, poor diets, and lack of physical activity have more to do with a person’s risk of developing cancer. Higher shared of Americans worry about factors over which people have little control, such as genetics of food additives.

AICR founds that fewer than half (42%) are aware that diets low in vegetables and fruit increase cancer risk. That number has gone down since 2009, when it was 52%. Evidence consistently links diets high in vegetables, fruits, and other plants to reduced risk for colon, stomach and mouth cancers.

Only 43% of Americans know that alcohol raises the risk of cancer, an increase of 5% since the 2013 survey. Alcohol is linked to cancers of the breast, mouth, and esophagus.

Only a third of Americans, 35%, know that diets high in red meat are strongly linked to colon cancer. This figure is the same as the 2013 survey.

On the plus side, more Americans are aware of the link between cancer and excess body fat, with more than half (52%) stating they understand the link between obesity and cancer, up 4% from 2013. Awareness that being sedentary causes cancer is up from 36% to 42% from 2013.

Americans overwhelmingly, and correctly, identified tobacco use as a risk factor for cancer (94%), as well as overexposure to the sun (84%). But high shares of Americans identified risks for which science has produced less definitive results than lifestyle factors, such as pesticide residue on produce (74%), food additives (62%), genetically modified foods (56%), stress (55%), and beef hormones (54%).

AICR Associate Director of Nutrition Programs Alice Bender, MS, RDN, said Americans are bombarded with results of individual studies, but rarely get a holistic picture of an overall approach to health. In reality, she said, “The science on lowering cancer risk has never been clearer.”