Cancer Knowledge Lags in Poor Nations

Knowledge about cancer facts, including cancer risks from smoking , are lagging in low-income countries, a new survey shows.

The survey comes from the International Union Against Cancer (UICC), a global nonprofit group based in Geneva, Switzerland.

"The survey reveals there are some big, unheard messages" about cancer, David Hill, PhD, president-elect of the UICC, states in a news release. Hill, who directs the Cancer Council Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, calls for cancer education worldwide to correct cancer myths.

The survey, conducted in October 2007, included face-to-face or phone interviews with nearly 30,000 people in 29 countries: Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Georgia, Greece, Guatemala, Indonesia, Israel, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Romania, Serbia, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, the U.K., the U.S., Uruguay, and Venezuela.

All participants answered the same questions about cancer. Those answers show an income gap in cancer beliefs, which may have risky consequences.

Seventeen of the countries in the survey are middle-income countries. Ten others, including the U.S., are high-income countries. Only two, Kenya and Nigeria, are low-income countries, according to the UICC.

Beliefs About Cancer Risks

Only 69% of people in low-income countries noted smoking cigarettes as a cancer risk, compared with 90% of people in middle-income countries and 94% of people in high-income countries.

People in wealthier countries were more likely to see cancer risk in not eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; in fatty foods, pollution, sun exposure, bacterial and viral infection; but not in alcohol.

Worldwide, most people said they thought eating red meat didn't raise cancer risk; that belief was particularly common in low-income countries.

How do those beliefs stack up against cancer facts?

Smoking is a known cancer risk. Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is associated with lower cancer risk, but it's not guaranteed to prevent cancer. Consuming a lot of red meat and alcohol has been tied to increased risk of some cancers, but isn't proven to cause cancer.

As for infections, some are linked to cancer, such as human papillomavirus (HPV ) and cervical cancer . But not all cancers are linked to infection.

Beliefs About a Cancer Cure

The belief that cancer can be cured was most common in high-income countries.

Among people in high-income countries, 83% said they thought that cancer could be cured, compared to 61% of those in middle-income countries and 52% of those in low-income countries.

Which view is correct? That depends on what kind of cancer you're talking about. Many cancers can be treated when caught early, but not all cancers can be cured.

When asked who should make decisions about medical treatments for cancer, 75% of people in low-income countries said the doctor should make such decisions. Only 11% of people in high-income countries agreed; most of them thought medical decisions should be made by the doctor and patient (43%) or by the patient (29%).

The survey has a margin of error of 1.32%.

By Miranda Hitti
Reviewed by Louise Chang
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