For Some, Fear Is Not an Effective Motivator to Get Screened for Cancer

When motivating people to get screened for cancer, fear may not be the best way to do it.
BY Christina Izzo
PUBLISHED January 29, 2015
When motivating people to get screened for cancer, fear may not be the best way to do it.

“Many people are afraid of getting cancer, but fear doesn’t have the same effect on everyone,” Charlotte Vrinten, a researcher at the Cancer Research U.K. Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London, said in a statement. “For some people, cancer fear motivates them to get checked up; for others, it puts them off from finding out whether they have cancer.”

Vrinten and colleagues conducted the study, published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, to find how the fear of getting cancer affects different individuals.

“In our study, instead of using a combined measure of cancer fear, as is often done, we distinguished these different aspects of fear to see whether they had different effects on people’s decisions about cancer screening,” Vrinten added.

For their psychological sub-study, Vrinten and her colleagues recruited nearly 8000 participants aged 55 to 64 years from the U.K. Flexible Sigmoidoscopy (FS) trial. Participants were given a baseline questionnaire which included three standard measures of cancer fear, asking if: (1) cancer was feared more than other diseases; (2) cancer worry was experienced frequently, and (3) thoughts about cancer caused discomfort. The researchers were able to capture complete data on all three cancer fear indicators from 91 percent of respondents.

Overall, 59 percent of the respondents were more afraid of cancer than of other diseases, 53 percent felt uncomfortable thinking about cancer, and 25 percent worried a lot about cancer.

The study also found that the effect of cancer fear depended on the type of fear. Worriers were more likely to want to get screened for colon cancer, but those who felt uncomfortable were 12 percent less likely to take up screening.

While this may not seem like a lot, “given that tens of thousands of people are eligible for this type of screening, it means a big difference in the number of people actually attending. Our study showed that cancer fear is still very common; more than half of our participants said they felt uncomfortable when thinking about cancer, and about a quarter worried a lot about cancer,” Vrinten said.

The questionnaire also assessed participants’ intention to get screened by asking them whether they would accept an invitation for FS screening. The majority (82 percent) said that they would “probably” or “definitely” pursue colorectal cancer screening, and for the subset (n = 1920) who received an invitation, 71 percent took up the offer.

Most public campaigns focus on increasing public fear about cancer and how deadly some types of cancer are. Vrinten suggested a better approach would be to inform people about how screening can actually prevent certain types of cancer.  

“Public information about endoscopic screening for colon cancer should help people understand that it can actually prevent colon cancer, so having the test can mean they have one less cancer to worry about,” she said.
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