Australian cancer patients cited ‘bad luck’ or ‘fate’ as the third most common cause of their cancer, a new study has shown. The research raises worrying implications about public understanding of the disease.

Cancer is caused by genetic changes that allow cells to grow and divide out of control. These genetic changes can be initiated by ageing, smoking, obesity, sun exposure and diet, among others. Some people are also more genetically pre-disposed to cancer, which can be identified either by a prevalence of cancer in the family or a genetic test.

The study of 585 Australian and Vietnamese cancer patients aimed to identify if people understood the possible causes for their disease. The participants were asked to name factors that they believed contributed to their cancer onset. Australian participants named ‘getting older’ as the most common cancer cause, followed by ‘family history’ and ‘fate.’ Across both participant groups, ‘smoking’ was ranked 5th and ‘alcohol’ 9th, despite both being high-risk factors for many types of cancer.

Vietnamese participants named ‘poor diet’ as the most common cancer cause, followed by ‘air pollution.’ The researchers say that the differences in the opinions between the two populations can be explained by cultural differences and personal experiences.

27% of Australian patients and 47% of Vietnamese patients believed fate could be a possible cause for their cancer. These results are worrying, because if people believe there is nothing they can do to stop themselves from getting cancer they will not be motivated to make positive lifestyle changes to reduce their risk.

It is clear that public health campaigns must act to try and counter the misconception that cancer is not a preventable disease.

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