Freddy Sitas, Director of Research, Cancer Council NSW, writes:

Myths and cancer can go together hand in hand. Not surprisingly, in a complex disease that horribly impacts upon, and cuts short so many lives, there remain many questions around cancer causes. Despite cancer research increasingly unveiling more about the ‘big C’, we still see myths thrive.

What effect does this have? Myths are just part and parcel of the great unknown – right?

Unfortunately myths are undermining cancer prevention, with Australian patients placing stress about money and the mortgage above established causes of the disease such as smoking, obesity, and family history.

New Cancer Council NSW research[i] published in Cancer Causes and Control has revealed these findings, whilst showing that half of all patients didn’t know what caused their cancer and a quarter thought the disease was unpreventable.

This is contrary to the fact that up to a third of all cancers can actually be prevented through simple lifestyle choices like regular exercise, a healthy diet and quitting smoking.

Certainly stress is linked to several health problems, but it does not cause cancer.  What it can do is affect people’s behaviour, so that they engage in more risky activities like smoking and drinking and eating unhealthily. It’s not the stress we can necessarily change but our reaction to it.

If as individuals, we continue to focus on stress as a cause, it potentially takes away our focus on known cancer prevention factors. That’s not good as we want people choosing fact over fiction and doing things that are more likely to make a difference to cutting their cancer risk.

The research also revealed a gulf in the opinions of cancer patients depending on whether or not their type of cancer had a well known cause.  Breast cancer patients were 60 per cent more likely to blame stress than lung cancer patients who understood the link to smoking.

The link between smoking and cancer is now ingrained in most of us. But when there is a gap in our knowledge, it appears we tend to grasp to any explanation. It’s easier than having unknowns in our lives.

So people wanting to cut their cancer risk are better off making some really simple lifestyle choices, such as keeping fit and active, avoiding smoking, restricting junk food, and knowing their family history for hereditary conditions.

How can we banish myths and generate a better understanding on what causes cancer?

The answer is twofold; more research and better communication of cancer causes and prevention. Many organisations, including Cancer Council are investing a lot of time and money into research. We do that part well.

What this study shows us is the importance of evidence-based prevention messages, to replace these myths. But the trick is to take the science and make it palatable, interesting and relevant to everyday people. Also as health professionals we need to work together to distribute these messages, so prevention messages are even more part and parcel of visiting the doctor.

Possible? I hope so. Watch this space…

[i] This research was a collaborative effort. Thank you to Simon Willcox who completed this research as part of his Master of Public Health (Honours) and Bernard Stewart, University of NSW.


For those wanting more details of the study, the abstract follows:


To analyze Australian cancer patients’ beliefs about factors contributing to the development of their cancer.


As part of a case–control study (The Cancer Council NSW Cancer, Lifestyle and Evaluation of Risk Study), a total of 2,857 cancer patients (open to all types of cancer) were surveyed and via an open-ended question, were asked to specify factors they think contributed to the development of their cancer. Qualitative analysis and categorical techniques were used to analyze the data.


About half, 53%, of patients specified at least one contributing factor. The odds of a person specifying a contributing factor increased with time period since diagnosis (p = 0.0006). Patients most frequently specified, respectively: “Stress” (15.4%), “Genetics/hereditary” (10.9%) and “Smoking” (6.2%). Among factors specified the largest proportion (24.1%) was perceived to be “Non-modifiable.”


Cancer patients specified a broad range of factors and agents to which their disease may be attributed. Some of these were poorly correlated with epidemiological rankings of attributable risk factors. The role of psychosocial and genetic factors was overstated. Misconceptions regarding the causes of cancer are a key consideration of health professionals when devising communication strategies around cancer prevention.

Update, 23 Aug
Interesting to see the Cancer Council is using YouTube to talk about the research

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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