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Australian cancer patients consider fate or bad luck the third most likely cause of their cancer, behind getting older and their family history, according to a new international study.

Led by the University of Newcastle and Vietnam Cancer Institute, in partnership with the University of South Australia (UniSA), the study compared the perceptions of 585 cancer patients in Australia and Vietnam, analysing differences across 25 possible beliefs about what may have caused their cancer.

Almost half of the Australian cancer patients believed ‘getting older’ was the main cause of their cancer, while most Vietnamese patient cited ‘poor diet’ as the main factor behind their cancer.

Overall, smoking was ranked the 5th most likely cause of cancer and alcohol the 9th leading cause.

The survey, titled What Caused my Cancer? And published in Cancer Control, revealed significant differences between Australian and Vietnamese cancer patients including:

  • ‘Getting older’ was listed as the main cause of cancer by Australian patients but Vietnamese cancer patients ranked it 10th
  • ‘Poor diet’ was the top perceived cause of cancer among Vietnamese patients, but ranked 11th for Australians
  • ‘Air pollution’ came in second as the main cause of cancer perceived by Vietnamese participants, whereas Australian patients listed it at 10th place
  • Australians ranked ‘alcohol’ the 12th contributing factor to their cancer and ‘lack of exercise’ 17th, whereas Vietnamese cancer patients had alcohol 7th and a lack of exercise 12th

UniSA Research Chair of Cancer Epidemiology and Population Health, Professor David Roder, said there is many misconceptions regarding what causes cancer.

“Unfortunately, people’s understanding of many cancer-related risk factors is modest to low. People’s beliefs about what may have caused their cancer are complex and likely to be impacted by multiple factors, including cultural beliefs.”

Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) researcher Dr Alix Hall, one of the study’s leaders, said a large portion of both Australian (27%) and Vietnamese (47%) held fatalistic views about the possible causes of their cancer.

“In the Australian sample, “bad luck” was ranked third and in the Vietnamese sample it was ranked fifth,” Dr Hall said.

“This is concerning because it suggests they believe they have little control over their health. That may affect their willingness to change their behaviour when it comes to diet and lifestyle, and influence their decisions relating to treatment and/or care.”

Researchers say the study underlines why public health campaigns must highlight accurate information about the possible causes of cancer.