October 24, 2017
2 min read

Survey: Most Americans unaware of leading cancer risk factors

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Bruce Johnson
Richard Schilsky

Less than a third of Americans understood that obesity and alcohol consumption are risk factors for cancer, according to a national Harris Poll survey commissioned by ASCO.

Further, many Americans are not taking cancer preventive actions, and others held misconceptions about cancer risk factors.

“This research helps us understand what our fellow Americans know and believe about cancer, and therefore, where we need to focus as a nation in our efforts to conquer cancer,” Bruce Johnson, MD, FASCO, ASCO President, said in a press release. “It is clear there are many important gaps we need to address — from educating the public about cancer prevention, to confronting high treatment costs, to investing in cancer research that is vital to improving patients’ outcomes in the future.”

Harris Poll conducted the National Cancer Opinion Survey from July 10-18, 2017, and received responses from 4,016 U.S. adults aged 18 years and older.

Four percent of respondents had cancer or a history of cancer, and 32% had an immediate family member with cancer.

Most Americans identified tobacco use (78%) and sun exposure (66%) as cancer risk factors. However, only 31% identified obesity as a risk factor — despite that obesity is the second leading preventable cause of cancer — and only 30% recognized alcohol consumption as a risk factor.

Fourteen percent of Americans incorrectly identified cell phones as a cancer risk factor, and 8% believed caffeine to be a risk factor.

Results showed most Americans are not taking steps to prevent cancer. Only 48% reported using sunblock or limiting sun exposure, 41% maintained a healthy weight, and 38% limited alcohol consumption to reduce cancer risk.

“Our lifestyles have a big impact on our risk for developing many common cancers,” Richard Schilsky, MD, FACP, FASCO, chief medical officer of ASCO, said in the release. “That so few Americans are aware that maintaining a healthy weight is associated with lower risk for many cancers should serve as a wake-up call. Unfortunately, obesity is a problem that cannot be solved overnight and will require broad societal engagement to address.”

The survey also found that 91% of Americans support robust federal funding toward the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of cancer. Seventy-three percent supported federal funding to help the development of cancer treatments and cures, even if it led to tax increases.

Many Americans also think the U.S. government should take action to address drug costs: 92% said Medicare should be allowed to directly negotiate prescription drug prices with manufacturers, and 86% said there should be government regulation to lower the price of cancer drugs.


This finding may reflect the fact that 27% of Americans reported that they or an immediate family member have taken actions to reduce treatment costs, including skipping doctor appointments (9%), not filling or delaying filling prescriptions (8%), skipping doses (8%) and cutting pills in half (7%).

“We should all be alarmed that Americans are potentially risking not only their health, but also their lives due to high treatment costs,” Schilsky said. “No patient or family member should have to face an impossible choice — between their cancer treatment and food, shelter, clothing and other necessary expenses.”

Many Americans are concerned about experiencing pain and suffering if they are personally diagnosed with cancer, whether they have had a family member with cancer (63%) or not (56%).

Despite these overall concerns, 79% of Americans are optimistic that the majority of cancers will be curable within the next 50 years.

“This poll shows that people are not only expecting, but counting on Congress and the Administration to invest more in research that will deliver the next generation of cures to patients,” Johnson said. “More funding for cancer research would mean more innovation, more studies launched, more patients enrolled in clinical trials, more researchers entering the field, and faster progress toward newer and improved treatments for patients.”

Disclosures: The survey was sponsored by ASCO’s Conquer Cancer Foundation. Johnson and Schilsky report no relevant financial disclosures.