Study uncovers ignorance over cancer among the elderly

Elderly Spaniards have very poor knowledge of cancer, its causes, treatment and prevention, with 2% of those questioned believing it to be a contagious disease, new research has shown.

Dr Tania Estapé and colleagues from the psychosocial oncology department at the Foundation for Education and Training in Cancer carried out one-to-one interviews with 557 people aged 65
and over in the Barcelona area. The average age of interviewees was 74.

Only 53.5% of those questioned thought that cancer could be prevented, only 45.8% knew about the impact of diet on cancer and only 38.1% knew that they should avoid becoming overweight.
Three-quarters of interviewees knew that cancer could be diagnosed early, but seemed less sure of how this can be done. Only 44% were aware of screening programmes for prostate cancer, and only
34% knew that breast cancer could be detected early.

‘This report shows how important it is to improve and increase the cancer education programmes that are targeted towards older people,’ said Dr Estapé. ‘Some attitudes and misconceptions
about cancer may lead to the elderly avoiding or not participating fully in a health lifestyle.’ Dr Estapé presented the results at the European Cancer Conference in Barcelona on 25

Among the more surprising results was the finding that 2% of those questioned believed cancer to be a contagious disease. A further 8.7% were unsure about this statement. Some 3% believed that
cancer was punishment for something that the sufferer had done wrong.

Knowledge of treatment was also lacking, with 44.7% and 23.1% believing that a mastectomy or prostatectomy respectively were the only ways to cure breast and prostate cancer. Around half of
interviewees also considered chemotherapy and radiotherapy to be dangerous.

The importance of informing society about ongoing research into cancer was reinforced by the study group’s views: less than one-third knew the meaning of a ‘clinical trial’, 23% knew what
‘placebo’ meant, and only 4.2% claimed to understand the term ‘randomisation’.

Interestingly, the responses of the 89 (17.2%) interviewees who had had cancer in the past did not vary significantly from the responses of those who had not. The only major difference was in
the percentage of people who believed that cancer could be cured (71.85% compared to 57.25%).

‘At the moment, our elderly people come from a time when health information was poor, cancer was often thought of as an incurable disease, and therefore there was nothing that could be done to
prevent or to cure it. I think our younger generations will be better informed,’ said Dr Estapé.

‘However, we need to try to improve the knowledge of our elderly so that they can understand that a diagnosis of cancer is not automatically a death sentence, and that there are lifestyle
changes they can make now to reduce their risk of cancer developing,’ Dr Estapé added.

For further information on the European Cancer Organisation, please visit:

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