Every single day there seems to be a new study saying this or that does or doesn’t give you cancer. Take coffee as one example. We used to think it increased your chances of developing cancer. Later, we decided it didn’t (unless it's very, very hot and then it just might). Recent studies have found it can actually cut your risk of specific types of cancer. Now, a judge ruling may force cafes in California to sell cups of coffee with a cancer warning, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
No wonder so many people are confused.
In 2016, researchers from University College London and the University of Leeds, UK, conducted a survey on 1,330 English adults to monitor their health-related lifestyle behaviors (smoking, physical activity, and fruit and veg consumption) and compare their beliefs in real and fake causes of cancer. Last week, the results were published in the European Journal of Cancer.
The good news is that awareness of actual causes of cancer is higher than that of mythical causes – but, disappointingly, overall awareness is still very low. Only 52 percent of real causes were correctly identified.
Most people would agree that smoking (88 percent), passive smoking (80 percent), and sunburn (60 percent) can increase your risk of cancer, which science has shown to be the case.
More concerning was the number of times people believed something caused cancer when there is currently no firm evidence to say that it does. Stress (43 percent), food additives (42 percent), electromagnetic frequencies (35 percent), and GM foods (34 percent) were incorrectly assumed to cause cancer. Another 19 percent and 15 percent believed (inaccurately) that microwaves and drinking from plastic bottles, respectively, could increase your risk of cancer.
"It's worrying to see so many people endorse risk factors for which there is no convincing evidence,” Dr Samuel Smith from the University of Leeds said in a statement.
"Compared to past research, it appears the number of people believing in unproven causes of cancer has increased since the start of the century, which could be a result of changes to how we access news and information through the Internet and social media."
So, what does he suggest we do about it?
"It's vital to improve public education about the causes of cancer if we want to help people make informed decisions about their lives and ensure they aren't worrying unnecessarily,” he said.
According to the study authors, between half and a third of cancers can be avoided by making simple lifestyle adjustments. That is equivalent to roughly 1.1 million cancer cases in Europe every year. The most important changes a person can make, the researchers say, are to quit smoking, maintain a healthy weight, and avoid overexposure to UV radiation.