ASCO’s First National Survey Reveals Americans’ Knowledge, Beliefs About Cancer

Dec 19, 2017

ASCO’s National Cancer Opinion Survey, a large, nationally representative survey conducted online by Harris Poll, found that the majority of Americans are unaware of several major risk factors for cancer—most notably obesity, which will soon overtake smoking as the largest preventable cause of cancer in the United States.1 The survey also reveals how high treatment costs are compromising care: one in four people who have had cancer or have an immediate family member who has had cancer are forgoing treatment or physician visits because of the expense. In addition, the survey found nearly three-quarters of Americans support greater federal investment in cancer research, even if it means higher taxes or adding to the deficit.

“This research helps us understand what our fellow Americans know and believe about cancer, and therefore where we need to focus as a nation in our efforts to conquer cancer,” said 2017-2018 ASCO President Bruce E. Johnson, MD, FASCO. “It is clear there are many important gaps we need to address—from educating the public about cancer prevention, to confronting high treatment costs, to investing in cancer research that is vital to improving patients’ outcomes in the future.”

The national study on Americans’ attitudes about cancer was commissioned by ASCO and was scientifically conducted online by Harris Poll among 4,016 U.S. adults age 18 and older. It is believed to accurately represent the broader population of the U.S. These data show that more than a third of Americans report having firsthand experience with cancer: 4% have or had cancer themselves, and 32% have an immediate family member who has or had cancer.

Cancer Risk Factors

While a majority of Americans correctly identify tobacco use (78%) and sun exposure (66%) as risk factors for cancer, far fewer are aware of other lifestyle factors that increase their cancer risk. Notably, less than a third of Americans (31%) realize that obesity is a risk factor for cancer, even though it is currently the second leading preventable cause of the disease. In fact, a higher body mass index is associated with increased risk of a number of cancers, including colon, breast, high-grade prostate, and uterine cancers. According to a recent analysis by the National Cancer Institute, if current the rates of obesity continue to trend upward, by 2030 there could be about 500,000 additional cases of cancer in the United States than would otherwise be expected.

The research also found that fewer than one in three Americans (30%) recognize alcohol as a risk factor for cancer, despite the fact that alcohol consumption can raise the risk of certain cancers, including cancers of the mouth, liver, and breast.

At the same time, the majority of Americans are not taking some important preventive actions to reduce their cancer risk. Only 48% say they use sunblock or limit their exposure to the sun, 41% say they maintain a healthy weight, and 38% say they limit alcohol consumption in order to prevent cancer.

In addition, some misperceptions about cancer risk persist: 14% of Americans incorrectly identify cell phones as increasing the risk of cancer, and 8% incorrectly identify caffeine as a risk factor for cancer.

Diagnosis Concerns

Those who have an immediate family member who has or had cancer have the greatest concerns about being diagnosed with cancer. For example, among Americans whose family member has/had cancer, 63% say they are worried about experiencing pain and suffering if they personally are diagnosed with cancer; in contrast, among people with no experience with cancer, only 56% say they are concerned about pain and suffering if diagnosed. Similarly, among Americans who have a family member who has/had cancer, 60% say they are worried about being a burden on family and friends if they personally are diagnosed, compared to 49% with no experience with cancer.

Cost Challenges

Of serious concern, more than a quarter of Americans (27%) who indicated that either they or an immediate family member has/had cancer say they/their family member have taken specific actions to reduce treatment costs—any of which could have a negative impact on their cancer treatment. Nine percent say they have skipped doctor appointments, 8% say they have refused treatment, 8% say they have postponed filling or not filled prescriptions, 8% say they have skipped doses of prescribed medications, and 7% say they have cut pills in half.

The study also reveals that a large majority of Americans believe the federal government should take action to lower prescription drug costs. For example, 92% of people say Medicare should be allowed to directly negotiate prescription drug prices with drug makers, 86% say the U.S. government should regulate the price of cancer drugs to lower their costs, and 80% say it should be legal for U.S. residents to buy cancer drugs from other countries.

Support for Federally Funded Research

More than nine in 10 Americans (91%) believe that the U.S. government should dedicate substantial funding to diagnose, prevent, and treat cancer. Nearly three in four Americans (73%) say the government should spend more to develop cancer treatments and cures, even if it means higher taxes or adding to the deficit. Views on other cancer-related priorities are more varied: just over half of Americans (54%) think the government should spend more to help Americans afford cancer screenings and care, and just under half (49%) believe more money should be spent on cancer prevention.

On the whole, Americans are optimistic about the future of cancer treatment and expect there to be a steady pace of progress over the coming decades. Nearly four in five (79%) are optimistic that the majority of cancers will be curable within the next 50 years, compared to 66% who think most cancers will be curable within the next 25 years, and 39% who believe most cancers will be curable within the next 10 years.

Read the full set of National Perceptions on Cancer Survey findings.


  1. Ligibel JA, Alfano CM, Courneya KS, et al. J Clin Oncol. 2014;32:3568-74.

Back to Top