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Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 21:20 EDT

Polls Finds Many Americans Believe Cancer Myths

June 27, 2005

An American Cancer Society survey finds up to half of Americans mistakenly believe surgery can spread cancer, and more than one in four thinks a cure for cancer already exists but is being held back by a profit-driven industry. Results of the survey are published in the August 1, 2005 issue of CANCER (http://www.interscience.wiley.com/cancer-newsroom), a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society. The authors say it shows the American public is significantly ill-informed about cancer, and that most overestimate how much they know.

The medical management of cancer and cancer-related complications, such as pain, has significantly improved over the last three decades, as have survival rates for leading cancers. Still, studies indicate that a patient’s own cultural beliefs and understanding of cancer may influence health behavior, such as whether patients get regular screenings and undergo treatment.

Led by Ted Gansler, M.D., M.B.A of the American Cancer Society, researchers conducted a national telephone survey of 957 adults with no history of cancer to assess Americans’ understanding of the disease and its management, and identify any demographic characteristics associated with misconceptions. Participants were asked if five misconceptions were true or false.

The authors found only one in four (25 percent) of participants correctly identified all five misconceptions as false. Four in ten (41 percent) of the respondents believed that surgical treatment actually spread cancer in the body and 13 percent said they were unsure whether this was true. Twenty-seven percent believed that there is a cure for cancer available being withheld by the healthcare industry and an additional 14 percent were uncertain. Nineteen percent believed that pain medications were ineffective in treating cancer pain with another 13 percent saying they did not know. Nine in ten (89 percent) correctly disagreed with the statement that “all you need to beat cancer is a positive attitude,” but more than one in ten (11 percent) either thought is was true or did not know. A similar percentage (87 percent) correctly disagreed that “cancer is something that cannot be effectively treated,” but again, about one in eight (13 percent) either agreed or did not know.

People who were over 65 years, of non-White race, residents of the South, or self-identified as without much or any understanding of cancer were likely to hold more misconceptions. The survey found little relation between people’s self-assessment of cancer knowledge and the accuracy of their answers. For four of the five questions, there was no significant difference in prevalence of endorsement of the inaccuracies between the groups who called themselves “very informed,” “somewhat informed,” or “not very informed.” However, those who called themselves “not at all informed” were generally quite accurate when rating their own health literacy.

“These results indicate that public and patient education interventions are most urgently needed in cancer centers, medical practices, and other community organizations that serve large numbers of patients with these ‘at risk’ demographic characteristics,” conclude the authors.

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