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Survey Sends Cancer Prevention Wake-Up Call

CancerWise - December 2007

A recent national survey found that many women have a false sense of security about cancer, either believing they are doing more than they actually are to prevent it, or that it is not a major threat.

In fact, even though cancer kills nearly 10 times as many people each year, more women fear Alzheimer's disease, according to the poll conducted by
M. D. Anderson and Prevention magazine.

The survey results were published in the magazine's November 2007 issue, “Winning the War on Cancer."

Goal of study

The survey gauged women's:

  • Knowledge, fears and sense of control over cancer
  • Actions, if any, aimed at avoiding the disease
  • Prevention efforts compared to recommended guidelines

Significance of results

The poll showed a substantial gap between what women know about cancer and their actions.

The survey’s lead author, Jennifer Irvin Vidrine, Ph.D., an assistant professor in
M. D. Anderson’s Department of Health Disparities Research, says the findings suggest that poor health behaviors, even when they are dangerous, are difficult to change.

This may be particularly true for women, whose family and career responsibilities sometimes leave little time for attention to personal health matters.

Research methods

Eight hundred women between the ages of 18 and 93 answered questions related to their lifestyles and feelings about cancer. The national telephone survey was conducted by Gelb Consulting.

Primary results

Less than one-third of the women surveyed are doing everything they should to prevent cancer, including following daily recommended guidelines for healthy eating and exercise.

Most women said they eat healthy diets (81%) and exercise regularly (73%).

However, the survey found that a much lower percentage of women ate the daily recommended servings of two fruits and three vegetables. The poll also found that a lower percentage get the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week.

Of the respondents, only:

  • 31% eat two servings of fruit per day
  • 12% eat three servings of vegetables per day
  • 32% get 150 minutes of exercise per week

About 42% of the women perceived they feel little or no control over whether or not they would develop cancer. In reality, 63% of cancers in the United States are linked to changeable behaviors such as smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity and obesity.

Being screened regularly for certain cancers can greatly reduce risk.

The survey showed that of women age 40 and older:

  • 67% had a mammogram in the past year
  • 77% had a Pap test in the past three years

Also, 57% of women age 50 and older had been screened for colon cancer.

Additional results

Women who rated themselves higher on the social status ladder, regardless of education and income level, were more likely to engage in behaviors to lower their cancer risk. Specifically, they were less likely to smoke cigarettes, more likely to consume the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables and more likely to have had a mammogram.

Women who smoke:

  • Were more likely to engage in other unhealthy behaviors
  • Rated their health as significantly poorer than non-smokers
  • Perceived their cancer risk as “moderate to very high”
  • Were less likely to:
    • Eat right
    • Exercise
    • Have mammograms

“Interestingly, women who felt like they had more control over whether or not they would develop cancer were more apt to engage in healthy behaviors, and this actually gives them more control. For women, one might say cancer prevention is a state of mind,” Vidrine says.

What's next?

“Our findings should serve as a wake-up call to women," Vidrine says. "Initiating and maintaining health behavior changes can be difficult, and it may be more difficult for some people than others.

"The good news is that we actually have more control over our risk of cancer than we think we do. The reduction in cancer risk associated with health behavior changes such as eating better, exercising regularly, not smoking and getting screened for cancer can be huge."

– Adapted by Dawn Dorsey from an M. D. Anderson news release

M. D. Anderson resources:


© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center