Is the risk of dying of cancer in the United States increasing? Can cell phones cause cancer?
The fact that many Americans answered questions like these wrong -- the answer to both is no -- is evidence that many fall victim to prevailing myths about cancer, according to new research.
The study, released Thursday in the online version of the journal Cancer, found that the segment of the population that suffers from cancer the most -- older, less educated, lower income individuals -- were also the most likely to be misinformed about cancer risk. Men were also more likely to fall prey to the falsehoods.
"There's good news and bad news in the study," said lead author Kevin Stein, director of quality of life research for the American Cancer Society (ACS) Behavioral Research Center.
"The good news is that we found, overall, people were pretty accurate," he said. "On average, people endorsed only three of the 12 misconceptions.
"The bad news is that the amount of people who believe certain misconceptions was alarmingly high."
Researchers from the ACS conducted telephone interviews with 957 people who had no history of cancer. They asked the participants to evaluate 12 incorrect statements about cancer, including "underwire bras can cause breast cancer" and "living in a polluted city is a greater risk for lung cancer than smoking a pack of cigarettes per day."
The most prevalent myth concerned the widespread perception that the risk of dying of cancer is on the rise.
While 67 percent of the participants said this belief was true, cancer survival rates have actually improved steadily over the last three decades.
"There are a lot of discussions of cancer deaths in the media, and high-profile cancer cases like Tony Snow or Elizabeth Edwards," said Stein. "That type of coverage increases the public's perception of cancer risk."
The ACS estimates that in 2006 approximately 1.4 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer and 565,000 died of the disease -- a drop in overall deaths as well as mortality rate. About a third of these deaths were related to tobacco use, and another third to nutrition, physical activity, or obesity. Almost all of these deaths were preventable, according to the ACS.
Access to accurate, reliable information about cancer can help people prevent the illness by taking measures to limit their risk.
"This research is useful because it identifies the issues that need to be addressed in public health information," Stein said. "It also identifies segments of the population where we need to work harder to get the message out."
For example, he said, messages specific to men's health need to be publicized widely. Men were more likely to believe the statements in the survey; on average, they believed eight out of 12.
"I think men may be more resistant to behavior modifications," said past president of the ACS Dr. Robert Young. "Cancer is the most feared disease, and therefore has a lot of myths -- particularly myths that link uncontrollable aspects of your life with risk.
"This study does offer us a message that we need to continue to do a better job of educating both patients and physicians."
One of the reasons misconceptions are so common when it comes to cancer may be the mysterious nature of the illness.
"Whereas we know many of the causes of diseases such as heart disease, we know very little about the causes of cancer," said Dr. Douglas Faller, director of the Cancer Center at Boston University School of Medicine.
"We cannot tell patients why they developed cancer, so myths arise, as it is human nature to want to have some reason why. If no reason is forthcoming from the doctor, patients will seize upon a myth, as unlikely as that myth may actually be."
In the end, primary care providers can learn something from the myths themselves as they attempt to pass more correct information on to the public, according to study author Stein.
"We really want to encourage people to seek out accurate and reliable information about their health. They need to know what the risk factors are, and what they are not."