Thursday, August 16, 2007

August 16, 2007 - Take a Cancer Quiz

OK, here's a little brain-teaser for the dog days of August. A recent article tells of a survey commissioned by the American Cancer Society, that sought to capture Americans' viewpoints about cancer. Here are a few questions from the survey. They're True/False questions, the easiest kind.

See how you do...

1. The risk of dying of cancer is increasing. TRUE or FALSE?

2. Living in a polluted city is a greater risk for lung cancer than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. TRUE or FALSE?

3. Electronic devices, like cell phones, can cause cancer. TRUE or FALSE?

4. Personal hygiene products, like shampoo, deodorant, and antiperspirants, can cause cancer. TRUE or FALSE?

5. Underwire bras can cause breast cancer. TRUE or FALSE?


Ready for the answers?

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Well, the correct answer to all those questions is: "FALSE." Here are the percentages of Americans who agreed with each of the statements:

1. The risk of dying of cancer in the U.S. is increasing – 67.7%.

2. Smog is riskier than cigarette smoke – 38.7%.

3. Cell phones cause cancer – 29.7%.

4. Personal hygiene products cause cancer – 14.7%

5. Underwire bras cause breast cancer – 6.2%.

(Source: "Many Americans Believe Unsubstantiated Claims About Cancer, Survey Finds," in Science Daily, July 27, 2007.)

The most surprising misconception – and the one most widely held, by a whopping two-thirds of the general public – is that the risk of dying from cancer is increasing. It's not. In fact, just the opposite is true: "the age-standardized cancer death rate has been decreasing since the early 1990s, and the 5-year relative survival rate for all cancers combined has improved steadily over the last 30 years." People with cancer are being treated more successfully – and are living longer – than ever before.

In 1971, President Nixon declared a national "War on Cancer." We, as a society, are far from declaring "V-C Day" and dancing in the streets, but the tide of battle is definitely turning in our favor. Yet, public perceptions – for quite irrational reasons – are still fixated on cancer as a burgeoning risk.

More than one in three Americans also believes walking around in smoggy Los Angeles is more likely to cause cancer than smoking twenty cigarettes a day. Air pollution's not good for anyone, to be sure, but – laid side by side with the proven cancer risk of tobacco smoke – there's no comparison. That one has a lot to do with that powerful psychological force called "denial." (I wonder how many who fall within that 38.7% are smokers?)

The remaining false statements in the survey – cell phones, deodorant and underwire bras causing cancer – are prominently featured in notorious urban-legend e-mails, that circulate from person to person. It's remarkable how persistent these untruths can be.

I know that, on the cell-phone question in particular – where nearly a third of respondents answered yes – some may come back and say, "Well, how do you know cell phones DON'T cause cancer?"

The answer is, "I don't – because it's notoriously difficult to prove a negative." Sure, some evidence could emerge, down the road, that cell phones cause cancer – but you could make the same prediction about mocha lattes, digital cameras, salad in pre-sealed plastic pouches, or any other relatively new product you'd care to name. Cancer warnings about microwave ovens were all over the place in the years right after that technology was introduced – with nary a shred of scientific evidence – but we rarely hear such claims anymore. There's a certain segment of the population that cynically greets every new technology with the knee-jerk response, "Yeah, and I'll bet it causes cancer." It doesn't take long for that water-cooler quip to take on an air of authority – and so, an urban legend is born.

There are a lot of impressive scientific resources directed toward curing various cancers, and may of them are showing positive results. I rejoice that, of all the different types of cancer, NHL is one that has been the focus of many recent breakthroughs – with more likely to be announced soon.

Back in the World War 2 era, they used to have a saying: "Loose lips sink ships." We can all do our part to aid the "war effort," by trying to make sure the statements we hear (and pass on to others) are based on fact, not rumor.

2 comments:

bint alshamsa said...

I hadn't heard about this article. It is a bit incredible to hear how many people think that first assertion was true. Those of us with cancer have seen the enormous breakthroughs that have been made in the past few years. I guess others don't get to hear as much about it or don't pay attention when they do hear it. Most people would rather put their fingers in their ears in order to prevent ever having to think about what having cancer would really be like.

Carlos ("Carl") said...

Yes, Bint, there's still so much fear people have about cancer. As you well know, getting through that time of diagnosis is like opening a door into a place that our minds tell us offers nothing but pain and misery. Once we cross the threshold, we find ourselves in a place much like the one we left. Truly, we live with cancer -- and life, even with cancer, is good.