Mar 15, 2013, 9:00 AM, Posted by Jeff Niederdeppe
Jeff Niederdeppe, PhD, is an assistant professor of communication at Cornell University and an alumnus of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program at the University of Wisconsin.
For the past 10 years or so, my colleagues and I have been studying how Americans make sense of public information about the causes of cancer and ways to prevent it. This has brought both good and bad news.
First the bad (and perhaps not surprising) news: many Americans are overloaded with information about cancer prevention and feel powerless about what they can do to prevent it. According to national surveys, one in four say there’s not much a person can do to reduce their risk of cancer, half feel that almost everything causes cancer, and three in four think there are too many recommendations to know which ones to follow. People who hold these beliefs are less likely than those who do not to engage in behaviors that we know reduce their risk of cancer – avoiding smoking and sunburn, eating a diet rich with fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly, and maintaining a healthy weight. These beliefs thus appear to have troubling consequences for broader efforts to reduce the rate of cancer in the U.S. through primary prevention.
In many ways, these feelings are understandable – it IS confusing. Cancer is not a single disease, but hundreds of them affecting different organs in the body, with different causes, different tests to screen for them, different treatments, and different prognoses. By some estimates, half of all cancer cases have an unknown cause. Cancer research moves slowly and incrementally, but increasingly publicly – one study might suggest that coffee causes cancer, while another points to its preventive potential. Science requires a back-and-forth between scientists as they sort out what findings hold up and which ones prove only preliminary. This process is absolutely necessary, but can offer a false sense of hope or opportunity if appropriate caveats aren’t offered in early stages of this work, or if preliminary results are publicized widely through the media.