English Cancer Study: Reality vs. Myth

If you’re tuned in to the cancer realm, real or perceived risks are bandied about in forums, in social media, and across various other media platforms on a daily basis.

Researchers in England decided to put cancer myths to the test. The results were published in the European Journal of Cancer. [1] The results were not surprising:

  • Approximately half of the known lifestyle-related risk factors were not recognized by the general public in England.
  •  Belief in mythical risk factors was common — particularly stress, food additives, and electromagnetic frequencies.
  • Knowledge of actual but not mythical cancer causes was associated with health-protective behaviors.

Approximately one-third to one-half of cancer diagnoses are preventable by changes to lifestyle behaviors, amounting to at least 1.1 million avoidable cancer cases per year in Europe. As outlined in the European Code Against Cancer, established cancer risk factors include active and passive smoking, alcohol consumption, overweight and obesity, physical inactivity, poor diet, and exposure to ultraviolet radiation. and human papillomavirus (HPV).

Part of the 12 ECAC lifestyle recommendations to reduce cancer risk features advice to not smoke and have a smoke-free home, to maintain a healthy body weight, active lifestyle and healthy diet, to avoid too much sun (especially for children), to limit alcohol consumption and to take part in HPV vaccination programs (for girls).

Yet, in Europe, more than one-third of adults fail to meet aerobic activity guidelines, more than a quarter continue to smoke, and more than half are overweight. In the United Kingdom, three-quarters of the population do not eat the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables, and 31% of men and 16% of women drink alcohol above recommended levels.

Belief vs. Socio-demographic characteristics and health behaviors

Literature on actual causes of cancer is growing but comparatively little is known about the prevalence of people’s belief concerning mythical causes of cancer. This study aimed to estimate the prevalence of these beliefs and their association with socio-demographic characteristics and health behaviors.

Knowledge of risk factors causally linked to cancer was higher than knowledge of factors not causally linked to cancer, but still disappointingly low. Low fruit and vegetable consumption was the least recognized cancer risk factor, with less than one-third of participants reporting it. Obesity was also poorly recognized, which is concerning considering it is the second leading preventable cause of cancer.

In line with previous research, participants who were white and had spent longer in education were more likely to identify actual cancer causes. Younger age and white ethnicity were associated with better identification of mythical risk factors. These patterns broadly reflect previous work, indicating that traditionally underserved populations are at risk of having a poorer understanding of cancer risk factors.

Awareness is key to accurate beliefs

A total of 1,990 adults took part in the Attitudes and Beliefs about Cancer-UK Survey. A randomly selected subsample of 1,348 adults also was asked to complete another survey to determine whether this new measure influenced responses to the original CAM. Participants who did not respond to all cancer belief items were excluded from analysis, resulting in a final sample size of 1,327 adults.

Participants were asked to provide information about their age, sex, ethnicity, marital status, social grade, education, and England region.

Knowledge of the actual causes of cancer is greater in the general population than that of mythical causes. However, awareness was generally low for both types of factors, which likely has implications for efforts to promote cancer prevention in the general population. Researchers found engagement in health-protective behaviors is associated with accurate beliefs about actual cancer causes but shows no association with endorsement of mythical causes.


[1] Prevalence of beliefs about actual and mythical causes of cancer and their association with socio-demographic and health-related characteristics: Findings from a cross-sectional survey in England. https://www.ejcancer.com/article/S0959-8049(18)30778-0/fulltext