‘Clear Crisis in Cancer Prevention Awareness,’ 
Roxanne Nelson, BSN, RN
February 08, 2017

Many Americans remain unaware of key risk factors for cancer, despite the fact that these risk factors can be reduced by making lifestyle changes, says the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).

Reporting results from its latest survey of awareness among the general public, the group notes that fewer than half of the respondents were aware of well-established lifestyle-related risk factors for cancer, including inactivity, consumption of alcohol, diets high in red meat, diets low in vegetables and fruits, and consumption of processed meats.

In contrast, the vast majority (87%) of respondents believed that genetic disposition had a significant effect on whether or not the average person will develop cancer.

In reality, an estimated 90% to 95% of cancers develop in individuals who lack these genes, the AICR notes.

There is a clear crisis in cancer prevention awareness.
Alice Bender

“There is a clear crisis in cancer prevention awareness,” said Alice Bender, RDN, AICR head of nutrition programs, in a statement. “It’s troubling that people don’t recognize alcohol and processed meats increase cancer risk.”

“This suggests the established factors that do affect cancer risk are getting muddled with headlines where the research is unclear or inconclusive,” she added.

The latest AICR survey involved 1004 respondents, who were asked: “Which of the following do you believe has a significant effect on whether or not the average person develops cancer?” They were then given a list of 29 risk factors that were randomly ordered.

The AICR highlighted the lack of recognition of obesity as a risk factor for cancer. Only 1 in 2 respondents (50%) were aware of this risk, despite the fact that, aside from not smoking, having a healthy body weight is the single greatest factor in lowering cancer risk, the group emphasizes.

Another alarming result, the group notes, was that only 39% of respondents were aware of the connection between alcohol and cancer. Of particular concern is that awareness of alcohol’s role as a cancer risk factor has declined during the past 16 years, since AICR began conducting this survey, it adds.

Past Surveys and Reports

The AICR has conducted this survey every other year since 2001. They have also published several reports on the effect of diet, nutrition, and/or physical activity on risk for several cancer types.

For example, 2 years ago, the group issued a report that provided evidence for a link between the risk for liver cancer and obesity and alcohol consumption. The report also indicated that drinking coffee helped curb that risk.

In 2013, the group reported that physical activity, or the lack thereof, played a prominent role in the risk for endometrial cancer. Their report estimated that 59% of the cases of endometrial cancer (about 29,500 annually) could be prevented if women engaged in physical activity for at least 30 minutes per day and maintained a healthy body weight.

And in 2011, an AICR report confirmed the link between consumption of red and processed meat and a higher risk for colorectal cancer, suggesting that about 45% of colorectal cancer cases could be prevented if people consumed more fiber-rich plant foods and ate less meat.

Changes in Trends

The AICR also looked at trends in awareness during the 16 years since they started the survey, and the result was mixed.

Awareness about diets low in plant-based food declined after 2009 and is now similar to awareness levels in 2001.

Awareness that alcohol is linked to cancer had been trending upward for the past two surveys but has now declined to a rate lower than in 2001 (39% vs 42%).

Awareness that physical activity plays a role in cancer risk has dropped to 39%, after peaking at almost 50% in 2009.

Recognition of the cancer risk from a diet high in red meat has fluctuated over the years but has remained almost unchanged since 2013 and is slightly lower than it was in 2009 (35% vs 39%).

Only 1 in 10 respondents were aware that coffee can lower the risk for two cancer types.

About a quarter of respondents (28%) said that sugar will cause cancer to develop, and 44% felt that high-fat diets were linked to cancer. Both of these topics received recent attention in the media, but evidence is inconclusive.

On the positive side, an overwhelming majority of people correctly identified tobacco (93%) and excessive sun exposure (84%) as being linked to cancer risk. That trend has held steady.

“We know a lot of healthy people do get cancer, and sometimes it’s easier to worry about genes or uncontrollable things rather than your everyday choices,” Bender commented. “But the research says that being physically active, staying a healthy weight, and eating a plant-based diet has the potential to prevent hundreds of thousands of cancer cases each year. It’s a powerful message.”

AICR. 2017 AICR Cancer Risk Awareness Survey Report. Full text