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Does knowing the facts about cancer make you hyper-aware or a hypochondriac?

Tuesday 19 October, 2010

Since starting work in a health promotion field I've self-diagnosed myself with all manner of diseases and conditions. When you spend most of your day writing, talking and thinking about lifestyle risk factors for cancers, it's little surprise that you tend to focus on these. 

Some comfort is that I'm not alone - a quick poll around the office uncovered the following comments:

"If I have a sore throat or cough that lingers I panic and assume that my days as a smoker are catching up with me and that I've developed throat or lung cancer."

"In a previous health contract I had to go through Medical Observer and Journal mags a lot and I was convinced I must have all these rare and unusual afflictions, after all every 'symptom' I could roughly identify or self diagnose..."

And it appears not just confined to myself or colleagues - A couple of weeks ago Simon Chapman, Professor of public health at the University of Sydney, was quoted in a newspaper article on commercial organisations with vested interests causing fear and stress by exaggerating the risks to young people from breast and prostate cancer.  One of our recent blogs picked up on this increase in commercial breast imaging marketed at women within the same breath as a pedicure. 

It got us thinking; does being more aware of cancer increase your fear of it?

In my case, obviously it does. But I am also more conscious of the things that I can do to prevent cancer such as being SunSmart, maintaining a healthy weight and keeping up with appropriate screening tests. For example, on noticing a suspicious mole I took myself off to the doctor's to get it checked. If I hadn't been aware of the need to check my skin I doubt I would have noticed it and if it had been a melanoma I could have been left undetected for some time. Maybe too long.

Importantly I know that cancer is not just down to fate - that lifestyle can actually have a big impact on my risk of the disease.

In some cases, cancer awareness campaigns can come across as rather scary, quite simply because the facts are. For example, a couple of months ago, a university study found that obese people didn't like an ad campaign we ran a couple of years ago letting people know there is a link between obesity and cancer. Would it have been better for us to keep these facts from those at risk? Imagine if we'd just kept quiet on the dangers of tobacco smoking. 

So how do you know what's exaggerated and what's not? It depends on who's doing the talking.

Are they touting risk factors or health claims off the back of one study? Public health agencies base their advice on comprehensive reviews of evidence. Another question to ask yourself is - does the organisation stand to make money from their claims i.e do they also have the solution to the problem?

So whom can you trust? When information comes from government sources or leading non-government organisations you can generally be confident you are getting the right information. For example, Cancer Council undertakes significant reviews of the evidence prior to developing advice on cancer risks. A good example of this is the link between obesity and cancer.

Our findings about being overweight and cancer are based on a comprehensive study we funded called Health 2020. From 1990 to 1994, 41,528 people aged between 40 and 69 were recruited as part of Health 2020. Trained interviewers directly measured height, weight, body mass index, bioimpedance (muscle versus fat analysis) and waist and hip measurements of the participants. Participants were then monitored over the years for certain types of cancers.

After almost 20 years of monitoring the participants and analysing the findings, a link between waist measurement and some cancers was discovered. It was found that waist measurement was a strong indicator for risk of:

Does your work make you more prone to jump to dramatic health conclusions? How do you cope with it?

Do cancer awareness campaigns make you fearful of cancer? Is this a good thing in that makes you more conscious of your lifestyle or overwhelming?

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