• British adults more worried about being diagnosed with cancer than other serious illnesses
  • Yet more than 8 million say they take no action at all to reduce their risk
  • Only a third do regular exercise (37%) or maintain a healthy weight (37%) to reduce their risk of developing the disease
  • Half (54%) are confused by conflicting reports on the causes of cancer
  • High proportions of the population did not identify weight (62%), diet (61%) or smoking (29%) as influencing a person’s risk of developing cancer

 

More than eight million British adults[1] (17%) admit they take no preventive action to reduce their risk of developing cancer, despite it being the most feared serious illness in Britain, new research from Aviva shows.

More people are worried about being diagnosed with cancer (58%) than dementia/Alzheimer’s (45%), heart disease (34%) or a stroke (32%). Women are particularly worried about being diagnosed with cancer (62% vs. 54% of men), perhaps because breast cancer – which predominantly affects women – is the most common cancer.2

Despite this, millions are failing to take simple lifestyle precautions to reduce their risk of developing the disease. Only a third say they maintain a healthy weight (37%) or do regular exercise (37%) to help prevent the disease developing.  And despite overexposure to UV radiation being the main cause of skin cancer3, less than half (46%) minimise their exposure to the sun or use a high factor sun cream.

Advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) states that processed meats such as bacon and sausages can increase the risk of colorectal cancer, while red meats are considered likely to be carcinogenic4. However, only 29% of British adults have cut down on this food group to reduce their risk.

Table 1: Many fail to take active steps to reduce their risk of developing cancer

Which, if any of the following do you do to reduce your risk of developing cancer? % who do this
Minimise exposure to sun or use sun-cream 46%
Maintaining a healthy weight 37%
Regular exercise 37%
Limit consumption of red/processed meat 29%
I do not take any steps to reduce my risk of cancer 17%

Lack of understanding around cancer prevention leaves Britain at risk

An estimated four in 10 cases of cancer could be prevented, largely through lifestyle changes5. However, the lack of action being taken to reduce the chance of developing the disease is partly due to poor understanding among British adults of the factors that increase cancer risk.

For example, although tobacco is the single biggest avoidable cause of cancer in the world, 29% of British adults did not identify smoking as a cancer risk factor. An even larger proportion did not identify diet (61%) and weight (62%) as influencing a person’s risk of developing cancer, despite these being major causes6. And although it has been proven to cause seven types of cancer6, over half (56%) did not identify consumption of alcohol as a cancer risk factor.

Understanding is particularly poor among younger age groups – only 57% of 18-24s believe smoking to be a cancer risk factor, compared to 79% of over 65s.

This lack of understanding is worsened by conflicting reports on the causes of cancer. More than half (54%) of British adults say they feel confused by reports of what to do and what not to do to reduce their risk. Among these, 26% say it makes them feel worried about what to do for the best, while 21% become ambivalent about cancer advice as a result.

British adults positive about future of cancer treatments and survival rates

Positivity about the progress being made in treatments and survival rates for cancer could be another reason people are failing to take preventive measures. More than three quarters of British adults (78%) expect to see cancer survival rates improve over the next 20 years, while four in five (82%) believe cancer drugs and treatments will improve in the same period.

People are also optimistic that a cure for cancer will be found in the next 50 years, with half (50%) in agreement.

Dr Doug Wright, Medical Director for Aviva UK Health says,

We now know that one in two people born after 1960 in the UK7 will get cancer in their lifetime. It has become very much embedded in the psyche of the nation, and represents one of people’s greatest health fears. Yet despite our high collective awareness of the disease, too many are failing to take any action at all to reduce their cancer risk. This is compounded by a lack of awareness surrounding the main causes of cancer, despite many high profile campaigns.

“It’s estimated that four in 10 cases of cancer can be prevented, largely through lifestyle changes5. Maintaining a healthy weight and diet will not only reduce your risk of cancer, but other serious illnesses such as type II diabetes and heart disease too. The same is true of smoking – it can be a hard habit to kick, but the fact this is the single biggest preventable cause of cancer in the world should act as strong motivation. Cancer drugs and survival rates may be expected to improve, but that is no reason to become complacent. Prevention is ultimately much more effective than treatment.”