National Survey Reveals Most Americans Are Unaware of Key Cancer Risk Factors

October 24, 2017

Shows Strong Support For Greater Research Investment But Access to Care is Limited For Some Americans Due to High Costs

Bruce E. Johnson, MD, FASCO, Chief Clinical Research Officer and Institute Physician at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and President, ASCO

(Alexandria, VA., Tuesday, October 24, 2017) – The majority of Americans are unaware of several major risk factors for cancer – most notably obesity, which will soon overtake smoking as the largest preventable cause of cancer in the United States. High treatment costs are compromising care: one in four people who have had cancer or have an immediate family member who has had cancer are forgoing treatment or physician visits because of the expense. In addition, nearly three-quarters of Americans support greater federal investment in cancer research, even if it means higher taxes or adding to the deficit.  These are a few of the many findings from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)’s National Cancer Opinion Survey, a large, nationally representative survey conducted online by Harris Poll.

The national study on Americans’ attitudes about cancer, commissioned by ASCO and released today, was scientifically conducted online by Harris Poll from July 10-18, 2017 among 4,016 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. It is believed to accurately represent the broader population of the U.S. These data show that more than a third of Americans report having firsthand experience with cancer: four percent have or had cancer themselves, and 32% have an immediate family member who has or had cancer.

While a majority of Americans correctly identify tobacco use (78%) and sun exposure (66%) as risk factors for cancer, far fewer are aware of other lifestyle factors that increase their cancer risk. Notably, less than a third of Americans (31%) realize that obesity is a risk factor for cancer, even though it is currently the second leading preventable cause of the disease. In fact, a higher body mass index is associated with increased risk of a number of cancers, including colon, breast, high grade prostate, and uterine cancers.  According to a recent analysis by the National Cancer Institute, if current the rates of obesity continue to trend upward, by 2030 there could be about 500,000 additional cases of cancer in the United States than would otherwise be expected.

The research also found that less than one in three Americans (30%) recognize alcohol as a risk factor for cancer, despite the fact that alcohol consumption can raise the risk of certain cancers, including cancers of the mouth, liver and breast.  

At the same time, the majority of Americans are not taking some important preventive actions to reduce their cancer risk. Only 48%, each, say they use sunblock or limit their exposure to the sun; 41% say they maintain a healthy weight; and 38% say they limit alcohol consumption in order to prevent cancer.

In addition, some misperceptions about cancer risk persist: 14% of Americans incorrectly identify cell phones as increasing the risk of cancer, and 8% incorrectly identify caffeine as a risk factor for cancer.

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