What lifestyle factors cause cancer?

Lifestyle changes can prevent about a third of all cancers. That’s approximately a million cases of European cancer each year. Although you might think that most people are aware of the risks associated with their lifestyles, this is not true. The European Journal of Cancer’s most recent study shows that many people still have many questions about risk factors despite large sums of money being spent on health education campaigns.

A significant minority of people don’t understand the importance of known risk factors or have unfounded beliefs about possible causes.

To make informed decisions about protecting their health, people need to have a clear picture of the risks associated with cancer. To reduce the burden of cancer, the public-health strategy aims to encourage people to avoid or minimize the risks they are exposed to. This is impossible if people are not clear about the risks.

The study of 1,300 adults revealed a high level of misinformation about risk factors. We used data from the Attitudes & Beliefs about Cancer UK Survey 2022 to examine people’s knowledge of the causes and determine if some groups are more likely to have inaccurate information.

Cancer risk factors hypersensitive

Our analysis was surprising. Our analysis revealed that less than half the questions about cancer risk factors were correctly answered. While some people understood the risk factors well, others had more knowledge and were more inclined to endorse fictitious causes such as microwave ovens or electromagnetic frequencies.

Although we could not investigate the cause, it suggested a “hypersensitivity”, or a perception of dangers that people did not perceive. This indicates that people are not filtering health messages sent via social media and other media outlets.

Most people were poor at identifying scientifically supported risk factors. Being overweight is associated with an increased chance of developing cancer in four out of ten people who responded. Similar proportions didn’t know about the dangers of sunburn. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents (71%) did not know that HPV (human papillomavirus) is a common virus that affects the skin and can be transmitted by sexual contact. It has been linked to certain cancers, including anal, cervical, and oral cancers.

Some people were not aware of the risks. Others held beliefs that are not supported by science about cancer causes. Nearly half of respondents believed stress was a factor, and 25% blamed mobile phones. One-fifth believed microwave oven use was a risk factor. This research raises questions about where information is available to people.

The public is not keeping up

According to previous research, those who are white and have had more education were more likely than others to recognize the true causes of cancer. Whites and younger people were more likely than others to believe that there were unsubstantiated risks of developing cancer. These findings confirm existing evidence that certain populations are more likely to have a less thorough understanding of the risks associated with cancer. Communication inequalities can be addressed by making health messages accessible and understandable to all members of society.

This is crucial because science is gaining a more complex understanding of what causes cancer. Likely, public knowledge will not keep up with the advancements in cancer research. This leaves important messages about health promotion unattended.

People increasingly read news via social media, sometimes from unverifiable sources (so-called fake news). It will be vital to track changes in people’s beliefs and lifestyles regarding cancer. Our study’s results can help measure future changes and provide a baseline for public understanding of the risk factors that can lead to cancer.

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