Tuesday, September 09, 2008

September 9, 2008 - Cancer Misinformation

OK, here’s a curious news item. Someone’s done a study of misinformation about cancer, and how spurious beliefs vary according to whether a person lives in the industrialized or the developing world:

“Researchers interviewed 29,925 people in 29 countries last year to compare data on perceptions about cancer risk factors among high-, middle-, and low-income countries.

Among their findings was the fact that people in high-income countries were least likely to believe that drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer, when, in fact, cancer risk rises as alcohol intake increases. Specifically, 42 percent of the people in the high-income countries said alcohol does not increase the risk, compared with 26 percent of those in middle-income countries and 15 percent of those in low-income countries.”

So, first-world people insist on believing, despite the evidence, that they can tipple risk-free. They also choose to believe – again, contrary to evidence – that eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables will do more to lower their cancer risk than abstaining from alcohol. It won’t. Alcohol is a far bigger risk.

First-world people also believe exposure to air pollution is more carcinogenic than drinking. It’s not.

People in middle- and low-income countries tend to take a Que Sera, Sera attitude towards cancer, believing not much can be done to treat it. Folks in wealthier countries – evidently more used to seeing baldheaded cancer survivors walking around – believe that aggressive therapy can make a difference.

Generally speaking, “people in all countries were more ready to accept that things they could not control (e.g., air pollution) were risk factors than things they could control (e.g., overweight, which is an established cancer risk factor).”

I’m still processing these observations. I don’t quite know what to make of them. Of course, it’s humbling to be reminded, once again, of how cancer treatment is pretty much the preserve of the wealthy (with “wealthy” defined according to a global standard, to include pretty much everyone in Europe and North America). In many parts of the two-thirds world, a cancer diagnosis is still pretty much a death sentence.

Yet, from Basel to Bangladesh, there’s still a lot of unreasoning fear out there when it comes to cancer. It’s a better fit for our frame of reference, somehow, to see cancer as an unstoppable force that descends with devastating randomness (caused by something like air pollution that few of us can do anything to prevent), rather than as something that can be a consequence of our own lifestyle choices.

Cancer is a great drive-in movie screen, on which we tend to project our desires as well as our fears. No wonder it can be such a hard subject to talk about.

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