What are people thinking? When it comes to assessing what causes cancer, it turns out that folks around the globe (and particularly in third-world countries) have very skewed ideas. To ascertain the worldwide general consensus about cancer, the Geneva-based International Union Against Cancer (UICC) surveyed 30,000 people in 29 countries, including 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.
Turns out that those in the wealthiest countries have the most “knowledge” about cancer, while those in the poorest countries know very little. For instance, in the high-income countries, 94 percent of the respondents knew that smoking causes cancer, while in the poorest countries (Kenya and Nigeria), only 69 percent considered smoking a risk. The richer respondents also recognized the connection between diet and cancer, and specifically, that fatty foods raised risk while fruits, vegetables, and whole grains lowered it. They also recognized the potentially carcinogenic effects of pollution, sun exposure, and bacterial and viral infection.
As they say, knowledge shall set you free…or maybe not! Here are the obvious questions: if “advanced” countries know more about what causes cancer, do they put that knowledge into practice? Do they have lower cancer rates to show for that knowledge? Do they cultivate better dietary and lifestyle practices?
And the answer is that when it comes to cancer, knowledge doesn’t necessarily equal better health practices. It’s noteworthy that North America and Europe have the highest incidence of cancer worldwide for both men and women. And most of those cancers are those associated with affluence — cancers of the colon and rectum, breast, and prostate. These cancers all reflect poor diet and lifestyle choices, in spite of the fact that in countries where rates are highest, so is access to information about healthy living.
Well, let’s not be too hard on our First-World brethren. There is one risk factor in which knowledge seems to make a difference.
When it comes to smoking, it does seem that the better-informed countries have the edge. For instance, smoking rates in the US have declined by 50 percent in the past 30 years, but in developing nations, smoking has been rising by 3.4 percent annually. On the other hand, adult smokers in the richest nations smoke more cigarettes daily than those in developing countries, with Americans and Europeans averaging 18 a day, Asians 14, and Africans only 10.
By the way, considering the general disconnect between knowledge and action, we should not be too surprised, then, that the US ranks only 42nd in the world in life expectancy, in spite of its great wealth and access to information.