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Women's Health

What Women Don't Know About Cancer

Survey Reveals Common Misconceptions About Cancer
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 26, 2007 -- Nearly two-thirds of women mistakenly believe having no family history of cancer means they have a low risk of developing the disease, and most do not know that oral contraceptive use is protective against ovarian and uterine cancer, a new survey shows.

Commissioned by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the poll results were released Friday to coincide with the launch of a new web-based guide designed to help women better understand their cancer risk.

ACOG past president Douglas W. Laube, MD, says the survey findings reveal a "worrisome gap in women's knowledge about cancer."

"This knowledge gap, as well as their fears about cancer, may be putting women at risk," he said at a Friday morning media briefing.

Among the highlights from the survey:

  • Two out of three women did not know that the vast majority of cancers occur in women with no family history of the disease. Only about 5% to 10% of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary, according to the American Cancer Society.

"While we know that having a family history of cancer is a risk factor, the fact is that most cancers occur in people with no family history of this disease at all," Laube says. "So those without a family history cannot assume that they are not at risk."

"Unfortunately the pill remains one of the best kept secrets in medicine," Laube says, adding that oral contraceptive use is still linked in many women's minds with an increased risk of breast cancer, even though many studies have found little or no association.

  • Only about half of the women surveyed felt they were doing enough to reduce their cancer risk, and 10% said they had done nothing to reduce their risk in the past year.
  • Almost one in three women (29%) reported that they did not see a health care provider on a regular basis and had not had a Pap test or mammogram during the previous year.
  • About a third of women without regular medical care cited lack of health insurance or other economic barriers as the reason.

"The greatest potential to further reduce cancer deaths in women will come from efforts to improve screening and access to preventive health care, particularly for women without insurance," Laube says.

The online survey conducted by Harris Interactive included 1,664 adult women aged 18 and older and took place Oct. 1 through Oct. 3, 2007.

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