From the Seed mothership: Cancer is due to ‘fate’, Britons believe

More than a quarter of people believe that fate alone will determine whether they get cancer, not their lifestyle choices, according to a survey conducted by charity Cancer Research UK.

The poll of more than 4,000 adults across the country asked people if they thought they could reduce their risk of getting cancer or whether it was out of their hands.

A total of 27 percent of people said cancer was down to fate, with more women than men believing cancer was a matter of destiny than prevention through measures such as quitting smoking or eating healthily.

(Continued after the jump….)

Going along with my earlier post from today discussing health, wealth, and education:

Among those from the most deprived areas, the figure rose to 43 percent but fell to 14 percent in the most privileged areas.

The charity’s press release contains even more data:

Of the 4,000 people questioned two thirds (66 per cent) were unaware that being overweight or obese increases the risk of some cancers. And almost exactly the same number (67 per cent) did not know that a diet low in fruit and vegetables could increase their chance of getting the disease.

Only one third (34 per cent) mentioned drinking less alcohol as a way of reducing risk. And around 75 per cent of those questioned were ignorant of the cancer risks posed by taking HRT or having many sexual partners.

This last one is pretty incredible. Anyone know if they have any ad campaigns over in the UK running for the HPV vaccine?

And while ignorance of actual causes was fairly high, there were also some false beliefs that unproven factors could increase your cancer risk:

But almost a quarter (24 per cent) believed living near power lines was a risk. And more than one third (34 per cent) thought stress was linked to cancer. Yet there is no strong scientific evidence to support either of these beliefs.

I hope we’re not exporting more of our science ignorance overseas…


  1. #1 Deepak
    January 5, 2007

    That was my first reaction as well. Not in Britain. I wonder what the results of the same poll in a country like The Netherlands or Sweden would be?

  2. #2 AJ Cann
    January 5, 2007

    “Ad campaigns” for vaccines directed at the general public are not relevant in the UK, since childhood vaccinations are carried out through the NHS (free at the point of delivery). Hmm, socialized medicine. Maybe us Brits aren’t so dumb after all … 😉

  3. #3 son2
    January 5, 2007

    But hold on, hold on. This could be just a matter of the way people are interpreting the question, right? I mean, I don’t know how the question was framed (and if it was something like, “Is there anything AT ALL that you can do to decrease your risk of cancer?”…well then, that 27% of people are out to lunch, but!).

    But if someone asked you, “Is the event that you might develop cancer ultimately a matter of fate or a result of your lifestyle?” I don’t see what’s wrong with saying, “Fate.” Fate is just the word laypeople use to refer to what a mathematician might call the outcome of a random experiment, right? I’m actually surprised that only 27% of respondents said cancer was a matter of fate…

  4. #4 Colugo
    January 5, 2007

    We would like to think that Europeans are smarter than that … but unfortunately, they too often are not.

    Consider anti-vaccination sentiment in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

    Europe also has greater public opposition to and policies against GMOs, water fluoridation, food irradiation, and animal research.

  5. #5 Colugo
    January 5, 2007

    Let me clarify my statement on Europe and certain scientific and public health practices: of course these are tendencies, since public sentiment and policies vary by country.

  6. #6 Tara C. Smith
    January 5, 2007

    ut hold on, hold on. This could be just a matter of the way people are interpreting the question, right? I mean, I don’t know how the question was framed (and if it was something like, “Is there anything AT ALL that you can do to decrease your risk of cancer?”…well then, that 27% of people are out to lunch, but!).

    From the sound of their press release, it was more of a questionnaire than a single question like that.

  7. #7 MS
    January 5, 2007

    Well, “their lifestyle choices” are not always real choices, but the result of the situation in which “they” find them selves, right from birth and onwards.

    I guess that could well be dictated by Fate???


  8. #8 Peter Lund
    January 5, 2007

    The British are notorious in Europe for their bad eating 😉
    (yes, they really are!)

  9. #9 Dale
    January 5, 2007

    On the other hand, most of these lifestyle risk factors (with the exception of smoking) only change a person’s odds of developing cancer by two or three fold or less. So for any risk factor you care to look at there will be lots of individuals who don’t have the risk but develop cancer anyway and there will be even larger numbers of individuals who do have the risk factor but don’t develop cancer. So as far as I can see, although lifestyle factors may influence the incidence of cancers in populations, it is still pretty much a crap shoot whether any given individual develops cancer.

  10. #10 pat
    January 5, 2007

    first off we are confused on a daily basis by scientific findings that seem to routinely contradict themselves and secondly the gene theory of cancer has been so pounded into our heads it hurts (if it is in our genes, then who cares, eh?). Europeans are perhaps simply more interested in living a good life as opposed to a long and worrysome one. North Americans are famous for their pathological fear of “danger”. The next person to wish me a “safe day” gets a punch in the nose.

  11. #11 p-ter
    January 5, 2007

    I hope we’re not exporting more of our science ignorance overseas…

    after living there for a couple (lovely) years, I can tell you it’s not an export, it’s all home-grown. humans are human, no matter where they live.

    btw, the title of your post expresses a common stereotype of Americans that I find offensive and harmful. 🙂

  12. #12 Mags
    January 6, 2007

    British anti science sentement (generally) seems to stem mainly from a far left sentiment rather than a far right one, IMHO.

    The best example I have of this sort of sentiment about cancer was when I was berating my dad for not eating healthily. I told him he should stop eating so many fried foods and butter so he wouldn’t die of heart disease and eat more vegetables to lower his risk of cancer. He came back with “Yeh, but then I’ll just get broccoli cancer instead of normal cancer”. I just had to walk away from that one, I’m afraid.

    People everywhere have this enormous distrust of science. It’s depressing.

  13. #13 Mags
    January 6, 2007

    And no; there’s no HPV vaccine ads in the UK. Not in the media, anyways. There was the predictable anti promiscuity storm as expected and nowts really been seen of it since.

  14. #14 bernarda
    January 6, 2007

    This video from the Veterans Administration has been commented on at Huffington Post and

  15. #15 Phillip Jesson
    January 7, 2007

    If I had been asked the question, my answer would have been slightly shorter, but in essence correct.
    “Eating, drinking, smoking and sex; all in excess.”

  16. #16 tim
    January 7, 2007

    “I thought that educated European science bloggers were smarter than this”

    Fatalities from most cancers remain “fate” – caused by events beyond the control of the individual. Genes for risk, random somatic mutations, and very poorly understood largely stochastic environmental events.

    Of course if there is a well known series of scientific papers showing that average people can usefully reduce their risk of cancer, or, more to the point, cure cancer by changing their behaviour, I’d love to hear about it.

  17. #17 Peter Barber
    January 7, 2007

    tim: Try PubMed for tens of thousands of such scientific papers on reducing risk of various cancers. They may not tell you how to cure cancer by changing behaviour (by which I assume you specifically mean lifestyle, otherwise choosing to comply with chemotherapy could be regarded as a behaviour), but I’d love to know which otherwise fatal diseases can be cured this way!

  18. #18 Francis
    January 8, 2007

    I hope we’re not exporting more of our science ignorance overseas…

    You quite regularly do – and we export some back (remember that Wakefield was one of ours). But in this case, this is more a British or European problem of ignorance than an American one (yes, Europeans are people with varieties of superstitions).

    In most civilised countries (and in terms of public health and healthcare, I’m afraid that I do consider the US uncivilised), vaccinations are something that just happen and are paid for by the government – there is no earthly point advertising them. But because the public health system is good and the medical care system is acceptable (complete with (barely) adequate benefits for the long-term off work), such matters are not considered such of an issue in the UK as in the US, and therefore there are whole realms of ignorance that can be plumbed because people don’t have as much of a reason to care.

  19. #19 tom p
    January 8, 2007

    On the Cancer research UK website (, under the News & Resources section they have an online poll running asking the question:
    “Do you think you can reduce your risk of cancer, or is it just fate?”
    * “Can reduce your risk”
    * “Just fate”
    Presently fate is winning with 55.17%.

    The press release containing all the information they sent out is here:

    If they phrased the question the way that the online one is phrased, then 27% of britons are idiots, however, they could’ve asked the question without the ‘reduce the risk’ option, in which case it’s an understandable result (after all, it’s a risk that one reduces and not a guarantee, therefore one could argue that it’s fate that it was you and not your fellow obese sunbed obsessed smoker who got cancer).

    Pat – we’re confused daily by rubbish media reporting of press releases of preliminary, often unpublished (and almost as often, it seems, unpublishable) scientific findings. You should visit

    Mags – British anti-science sentiment stems from the mainstream right as well as the far left, just look at the Daily Mail.

  20. #20 pat
    January 8, 2007


    Checked, bookmarked. thanks!

  21. #21 potentilla
    January 9, 2007

    Anyone know if they have any ad campaigns over in the UK running for the HPV vaccine?

    It’s illegal in the UK to advertise prescription-only drugs to the general public.