Cancer Messages Too Many, Too Puzzling
Slew of Recommendations Can Mask the Basics of Cancer Prevention
May 17, 2007 -- Coffee causes cancer. Coffee prevents cancer. Red wine works, but fiber doesn’t. Or does it?
If you’re baffled by the bewildering array of cancer advice, you’re not alone.
A study released today concludes that more than seven in 10 Americans are so confused by seemingly wide range of cancer recommendations that they don’t know which to follow. And for many, the response to the puzzle is to simply do nothing.
Forty-seven percent of nearly 6,300 adults surveyed told researchers said they agreed that “it seems like almost everything causes cancer.” Meanwhile, three in 10 say, falsely, that there’s nothing they can really do to prevent the disease.
Part of the problem, says study author Jeff Niederdeppe, PhD, is the huge volume of news reports on cancer findings bombarding the public. Scientists usually expect contradictory results, but when headlines blare first one finding, then another, without context, the result can be an almost demoralizing mystification.
Some people respond by throwing up their hands. Others may unconsciously use the confusion to rationalize smoking or eating fatty food.
“It can give people justification to do those unhealthy behaviors they want to do already,” says Niederdeppe, a research fellow at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Another source of confusion is that cancer is actually dozens of different diseases, each with dozens of potential influencing factors. What prevents breast cancer may have no effect on liver or lung cancer.
That’s also why the relentless search for cancer-fighting properties in foods, dietary supplements, and other commercial products can be misleading. Many findings target only one kind of cancer in only one group of people.
Simplifying the Complicated
University of Pittsburgh psychologist William Klein, PhD, says the barrage of mixed messages and confusing findings masks the fact that we do indeed know how to help prevent a lot of cancer.
“It’s just nibbling around the edges,” says Klein, who also studies the psychology of cancer prevention.
“People should just do the basic things. Keep weight down by exercising, don’t smoke, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Those are things we know already, and they make the biggest difference” he says.