Intended for healthcare professionals


Women's perception of risk of cancer

BMJ 1998; 317 doi: (Published 22 August 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;317:542
  1. Katrina Lavelle, Senior health promotion adviser,
  2. Anne Charlton, Professor of cancer health education
  1. Stockport Centre for Health Promotion, Stockport Healthcare NHS Trust, Stockport SK2 7AE
  2. Cancer Research Campaign Education and Child Studies Research Group, School of Epidemiology and Health Sciences, University of Manchester, Manchester M13 9PJ

    EDITOR—Figures recently published by the Cancer Research Campaign showed that cancer is now the leading cause of death in the United Kingdom.1 This change seems to be due to a more rapid fall in mortality from heart disease than from cancer, although both are declining. For many years, women have believed cancer to be the greatest killer. 2 3

    Participants' responses to statements relating to risk of breast cancer

    View this table:

    Cancer education has aimed to reduce the related fear which could cause rejection of cancer screening and delay in seeking treatment.4 Cancer education now needs to change to take account of the new statistics. It also needs to address risk reduction if a more rapid fall in mortality is to be achieved. In a small pilot survey, we have attempted to provide a new baseline of women's views on cancer with special reference to breast cancer, which is the commonest cause of death from cancer in UK women.5

    The study was carried out in five Townswomen's Guild meetings in the north of England. A total of 37 women aged 45-75 participated (100%response). Participants completed a short anonymous questionnaire under the supervision of the researcher. Most of the questions were completed by ticking boxes.

    Although 25 of the 37 women answered correctly that heart and circulatory diseases were the leading cause of death in men, only three considered it to be cancer. Twenty nine said that cancer caused the most deaths in women.

    From a list of 12 types of cancer, 34 selected breast cancer as the commonest type among women in the United Kingdom. Thirty of the respondents said that women under the age of 55 were at greatest risk. The table shows the responses to a series of true and false statements relating to risk of breast cancer. Although this is only a small study, the findings point to the need to establish a new baseline of knowledge and beliefs on which education programmes to reduce risk of cancer, and breast cancer in particular, can be built.


    We thank the Townswomen's Guilds for making this study possible and Dr David While for his advice.


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