Cancer Messages Too Many, Too Puzzling

Slew of Recommendations Can Mask the Basics of Cancer Prevention

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 17, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

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.

Confusion Reigns

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.

An estimated 30% of all cancer is related to smoking, while up to 20% more is related to obesity. Whether the latest antioxidant or fish product works or not, it is guaranteed to do a lot less than exercising and eating right.

“These three things we know are the best that we can do,” Niederdeppe says. Klein adds one more: regular screening according to schedules recommended by the National Cancer Institute.

Still, fewer than 25% of adults exercise three times a week or more, according to the CDC. Just 14% eat the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables.

Exercising regularly and eating right can be a lot harder than taking an antioxidant or fish oil tablet. Marketers know this and exploit it, Niederdeppe says.

“People like to be able to take a pill and fix things. That’s where a lot of this ‘just do this and you have the answer’ messages have allure and lead to the confusion,” he says.

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SOURCES: Niederdeppe, J. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, May 2007, vol 15. Jeff Niederdeppe. PhD, research fellow, University of Wisconsin. William Klein, PhD, associate professor of psychology, University of Pittsburgh. National Center for Health Statistics.

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