Fatalistic Beliefs about Cancer Prevention and Three Prevention Behaviors

This study examined associations between holding fatalistic beliefs about cancer and engaging in cancer prevention behaviors. Three behaviors were examined: physical activity, not smoking, and fruit and vegetable consumption. Fatalistic beliefs about cancer encompassed agreeing with statements such as "it seems like almost everything causes cancer" and "there's not much people can do to lower their chances of getting cancer." The study also identified sociodemographic correlates of holding these beliefs, such as education and race/ethnicity. Data came from the Health Information National Trends Survey, a National Cancer Institute telephone survey conducted between 2002–2003.

Analysis indicated that respondents with less education were more likely to agree with the fatalistic beliefs in question; Hispanic and African American's agreement with statements varied, in comparison with agreement by Whites, depending on the individual statement. Holding fatalistic beliefs about cancer was associated with lower likelihood of engaging in all three behaviors studied, in 8 out of 9 models used to analyze data. The only exception to this was that agreement with the statement "there's not much a person can do to prevent cancer" was not associated with lower odds of being a nonsmoker.

This study revealed three important findings: that fatalistic beliefs about cancer prevention are common in U.S. adults; that such beliefs are more common among less educated adults, but weaker or equivalent among African Americans and Hispanics, after controlling for socioeconomic status; and that such beliefs are associated with lower odds of engaging in certain behaviors known to prevent cancers. This study contradicts several other studies showing stronger correlations between race/ethnicity and fatalistic beliefs about cancer prevention. Several findings discussed here require further research, including the finding that a family history of cancer is correlated with the belief that "everything causes cancer." This suggests that a proximal cancer experience may raise perceived risk of cancer while also raising barriers to cancer prevention efforts. Clarifying sources of cancer fatalism will be important in targeting efforts to reduce it.