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Survey Finds Many Women Misinformed About Cancer

FRIDAY Oct. 26, 2007 -- Sixty-three percent of American women think that if there's no family history of cancer, you're not likely to develop the disease, a new survey found.

In fact, most people who develop cancer have no family history of cancer, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), which sponsored the survey. The survey underscores the need for better education and understanding of the steps women can take to prevent cancer and to detect it early.

"Too many women are dying from cancer," Dr. Douglas W. Laube, ACOG's immediate past president and chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said during a Friday teleconference. "An estimated 200,070 women will die in the U.S this year, and over 600,078 women will be diagnosed with cancer. The results of this survey found a worrisome gap in women's knowledge about cancer."

Based on the findings, ACOG is increasing its efforts to educate women about cancer and the need for regular screening tests, such as Pap tests, mammograms and colonoscopies.

Although the survey found many misconceptions about cancer, 76 percent of women surveyed did say they feel knowledgeable about how they can reduce their risk of the disease.

However, only 52 percent said they're doing enough to reduce that risk. And 10 percent said they hadn't done anything in the past year to lower their risk. Seventeen percent said they wouldn't change their lifestyles, even if changes would lower their cancer risk.

Many women said they were afraid to undergo screening out of fear of finding cancer. Twenty percent said they didn't want to know if they had cancer.

Other survey findings included:

  • Only 56 percent of women had seen a doctor in the past year, but 77 percent said regular physician visits help reduce the risk of cancer.
  • 29 percent of women haven't seen a doctor on a regular basis or had a Pap test or a mammogram in the past year.
  • 18 percent said Pap tests and mammograms weren't necessary, 7 percent said they didn't know how to get screened, and 7 percent thought screening was a waste of time.
  • 37 percent of the women said they couldn't afford to see a doctor.

Michael Stefanek, director of behavioral research at the American Cancer Society, said the survey results mirrored other study findings.

"The data is not inconsistent with what we know about women's knowledge and screening practices," he said. "We need to do a better job alerting women that they are at risk for cancer even if they have no family history."

Stefanek noted that U.S. cancer deaths dropped an average 2.1 percent each year from 2002 through 2004 -- double the average 1.1 percent decline seen from 1993 through 2002. This improvement is largely due to better cancer screening and early detection, he said.

Stenfanek also thinks more women need to be screened, and there needs to be greater access to health care so women can get the care they require.

In response to these findings, ACOG will launch on Oct. 29 a new Web site -- Protect & Detect: What Women Should Know about Cancer. The guide is designed to help women, working with their ob-gyns, to take charge of their health and improve their understanding of their risk of cancer -- and the lifestyle steps they can take to cut that risk.

ACOG has also developed new guidelines for colorectal cancer screening. The guidelines recommend that women, starting at 50, receive a colonoscopy every 10 years. Colonoscopy is the "gold standard" for preventing colorectal cancer because of its ability to detect precancerous lesions and remove them during the procedure.

While ACOG is recommending colonoscopy for women at high risk for colon cancer, it's also recommending the procedure for women at average risk.

Not all experts agree with that approach.

"There are other methods that are acceptable if you choose not to get colonoscopy," said Robert Smith, director of cancer screening at the American Cancer Society. "Not all women are going to have access to colonoscopy or affordable colonoscopy."

Virtual CT colonoscopy may be as effective as a colonoscopy for detecting serious lesions, Smith said. Other screening tests include fecal occult blood tests and sigmoidoscopy, he said.

For women who have a low risk of colon cancer, other screening methods are effective, Smith said. "However, for women who have a family history or personal history of colorectal cancer, colonoscopy is the preferred test," he said.

More information

For more on woman and cancer, visit the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Posted: October 2007


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