Confusion about Cancer Risk

February 17, 2015 in Exercise, Health, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the Continuous Update Project (CUP) have released their annual risk awareness survey report. The goal of the survey is to determine how well the American public is able to separate clearly established cancer risks, from factors about which there is no such scientific consensus. Actually, it’s somewhat fascinating.

The study suggests that fewer than half of Americans are aware that some major lifestyle factors can affect their cancer risk. The public seems to be more worried about factors like genetically modified foods, their own genes and stress than obesity and lack of physical activity.

An important fact that hopefully the public will come to realize is that about half of cancer deaths in the U.S. could be prevented through lifestyle choices; like not smoking, eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight. The AICR estimates that about 340,000 US cancer cases could be prevented through changes in diet, weight, and physical activity.

The surveys began in 2001and only four of the six known lifestyle-related risk factors have experienced modest increases in awareness. Even with slight gains in four of the risk factors, the six known lifestyle-related risk factors continue to remain alarmingly low for awareness. Of the six factors (obesity, inactivity, alcohol, diets high in red meat, diets low in vegetables and fruits, and processed cured meats) only obesity has nudged above 50 percent (52%) in awareness as a risk factor for cancer. Most Americans correctly do identify tobacco use (94%) and excessive sun exposure (84%) as cancer risks; but the following six factors need a big jump in awareness.

The questions included in the survey: Which of the following do you believe has a significant effect on whether or not the average person develops cancer?

  • Obesity (52% correctly believed that obesity can have a significant effect of developing cancer.) Obesity raises the risk for colorectal cancer, post-menopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer, esophageal cancer, endometrial cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer, gallbladder cancer and aggressive prostate cancer. Besides not smoking, being at a healthy weight is the single most important thing Americans can do to protect themselves from cancer. Obesity increases risk for nine of the most common cancers in the US.
  •  Insufficient Physical Activity (Only 42%, correctly believed that lack of exercise could influence the average person’s risk of developing cancer.) Insufficient physical activity raises the risk for colorectal cancer, post-menopausal breast cancer and endometrial cancer. The AICR says that physical activity is pretty close to being a magic bullet for lowering risk of cancer; it regulates the body’s hormone levels and helps to prevent the buildup of excess body fat (see obesity above).
  • Diets Low in Vegetables and Fruits (Only 42% believed that diets low in fruits and vegetables could raise the risk of cancer.) Low fruit and vegetable consumption raise the risk for colorectal cancer, stomach cancer, esophageal cancer, lung cancer and mouth/pharynx/larynx cancer. In addition, to the direct effect on cancer risk, fruits and vegetables are low in calorie-density, which means that this factor also has the potential to effect the obesity risk separately. In addition, diets high in fruits and vegetables also lower your risk of other problems, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
  • Alcohol (Only 43% believed that alcohol can raise the risk for cancer.)  Alcohol raises the risk for colorectal cancer, breast cancer (pre- and post-menopausal), esophageal cancer, mouth/pharynx/larynx cancer and liver cancer. Alcohol is a clear and convincing cause of several cancers, and the AICR says that the best advice is to not drink at all.
  • Diets High in Red Meat (Only 35% believed that high red meat consumption can raise the risk for cancer.) Diets high in red meat have been convincingly shown to raise the risk for colorectal cancer. The AICR recommends that those who choose to eat red meat at all, limit themselves to no more than 18 ounces (cooked) per week.
  • Cured Meats (Meat Preserved by Salt, Nitrates, Nitrites or Sugar). (Only 38% believed that cured meat intake is a cause of caner.) It raises he risk for colorectal cancer. AICR recommends saving cured meats (bacon, ham, hot dogs, and cold cuts) for special occasions only. Only about one in three Americans is aware that processed meats are linked to increased cancer risk.

Be sure to take a moment to look at the chart on page 3 of the report. There are quite a few items that have not been proven to cause cancer that are above those that have been proven to cause cancer.

It’s interesting that 89% of those surveyed said that those with an inherited predisposition for cancer – cancer genes were at increased risk. But the fact is that approximately 95% of cancers is in individuals who do not possess these genes. Most cancers are affected by our lifestyle!

It seems that the public often worries about artificial sweeteners causing cancer, but will drink a giant gulp soda with sugar, fries, and a cheeseburger without worry.

Of course, this survey is all about risk. Certainly, you can do all the right things and still, unfortunately develop cancer. But having said that, you can reduce your risk by choosing low risk life-style behaviors. The take home is that, about half of the cancer deaths are preventable; the risk of developing cancer is not completely out of our control.