By Karen Oslund, Executive Director

At the Cancer Resource Centers of Mendocino County, every year we help hundreds of people who have cancer, and some of them did everything “right.” It is important to say this first, because although we can reduce our risk for cancer by making healthy lifestyle choices, we can never eliminate it completely, and a cancer diagnosis should never induce self-blame. We are all at risk for cancer.

That said, a 2017 report from the American Institute for Cancer Research provides interesting insights into what people believe increases their risk for cancer vs. what research shows actually increases risk. This survey contains both good and bad news and suggests opportunities where we could do better in educating the public.

The good news:  Tobacco is “universally recognized as a link to increased cancer risk.”  According to the report, 93% of those surveyed were aware of the strong link between tobacco use and cancer.  Successful public relations and advertising campaigns as well as stiff tobacco taxes have reduced smoking across the U.S., especially in California.  According to Tobacco Free California, the prevalence of smoking in California is down to 11.6%, second only to Utah for the smallest percentage of smokers. Those who work in the field of prevention and health education can learn from the success of these anti-tobacco campaigns.

The link between obesity and cancer, however, is not as well understood by the public. According to the report, “apart from not smoking, being at a healthy weight is the single most important thing Americans can do to protect themselves from cancer. Awareness of this link needs to be much higher.” Maintaining a healthy weight is easier with a diet of mostly vegetables and fruit, also proven to reduce risk of cancer, and by being physically active, which also, by itself, reduces cancer risk.  But many Americans are not hearing this message:  only 50% of survey responders believe that being overweight or obese is linked to cancer growth and 55% are not aware of the benefits of eating a plant-based diet.

Public awareness that physical activity reduces cancer risk is at 39%–not so good—especially considering this is down from previous surveys.  According to the National Cancer Institute, the most physically active individuals have a 24% lower risk of getting colon cancer and physically active women have a reduced risk of breast cancer.  We could do better in getting the word out that physical activity has many, many health benefits, and one of them is a lower risk for cancer.

Confusion about known and perceived cancer risks is understandable. Information about new research comes out in the news almost daily; it’s a lot to take in. There are also competing headlines related to health risks for conditions other than cancer and it is easy to assume that if something is “bad” in terms of heart disease, diabetes, or weight gain, it must also cause cancer.  For example, 28% of people believe sugar causes cancer, but there is no conclusive evidence on this.  Eating too much sugar, of course, is not good for our health:  it contributes to overweight, obesity, and diabetes. But it has not been proven to cause cancer.

The gap between our perception of risk vs. reality is significant in a couple of other areas, including the risks of cured meats, red meat, and alcohol; all, unfortunately, linked to some increased risk for some types of cancer.  The National Cancer Institute website is a good source of more information and has links to more in-depth articles for anyone wanting to learn more.

In an effort to end on an upbeat note, here is some very good news, at least for me:  Coffee? No conclusive evidence it increases risk for cancer, yet 10% of people surveyed believe there is a link.  In fact, quite the contrary:  there is “strong evidence that coffee plays a protective role against endometrial and liver cancers.” As a fan of a strong cup of French roast, this comes as a relief. I think I will go start a pot right now.

The Cancer Resource Centers’ 2017 Cancer Awareness and prevention series is sponsored by CRC in collaboration with the Mendocino County Health and Human Services Agency. The information presented is for educational purposes and is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your health care provider.  The Cancer Resource Centers of Mendocino County is a grassroots organization serving our communities since 1995 by providing information, advocacy, and support services free of charge.

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