Cancer is a widely feared disease but outcomes are constantly improving, and last year Cancer Research UK reported that half of patients now survive over ten years. Much of this is due to improvements in treatment and catching cancer early, but is public opinion about cancer becoming more positive?
We carried out a study using data from the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership, which looked at the UK public’s attitudes towards cancer and how likely they are to believe negative and positive statements about it.
Almost everyone was aware that early detection is important for survival and agreed that cancer can often be cured. However, at the same time some people also believed cancer is a death sentence and that they would rather not know if they have it. Their opinions about cancer were therefore very mixed, which has also been shown recently by an interview study. This could have to do with the different experiences people have of cancer and the range of cancer outcomes for different people and different cancers. Although we took into account whether people had personal experience of cancer (i.e. whether they had been diagnosed with cancer, or someone close within their family or friends had) in our analyses, we had not asked about the kind of experience they had (i.e. whether they had seen others survive, suffer or carry on with life as usual).
The group most likely to hold these mixed opinions were those from socially deprived backgrounds, which we measured using highest level of education as a marker. Unfortunately deprivation still increases the chance of having worse cancer outcomes and perhaps this group struggle to reconcile their more negative experience of the disease with widely promoted early detection principles.
This is important because research shows that negative beliefs about cancer may put people off going to their doctor with worrying symptoms or taking part in screening. If these negative beliefs about the chance of surviving cancer win over positive attitudes to early detection, they could become a self-fulfilling prophecy and help to maintain inequalities in cancer outcomes.
So it seems that while positive messages about early detection have successfully been communicated, negative and fearful attitudes remain deep-seated. Health campaigns need more innovative and meaningful messages to target negative beliefs about cancer survival. Simply reiterating that beating cancer is possible may not be enough.
Article Reference: Quaife SL, Winstanley K, Robb KA, Simon AE, Ramirez AJ, Forbes LJL, Brain KE, Gavin A, Wardle J. (2015). Socioeconomic inequalities in attitudes towards cancer: an international cancer benchmarking partnership study. European Journal of Cancer Prevention. doi: 10.1097/CEJ.0000000000000140