Most Americans See Cancer as a Death Sentence

The death rate from cancer has gone down in recent years, but the majority of Americans still view cancer as a death sentence, a new survey says.

Of the nearly 7,500 Americans surveyed, more than 61 percent said when they think of cancer , they automatically think of death.

The findings are troubling because many types of cancer are preventable or treatable, said study researcher Richard Moser, a research psychologist at the National Cancer Institute. For instance, a healthy diet, frequent exercise and appropriate screening tests can prevent or detect many cancers in their early stages, Moser said.

"Despite the fact that we've made a lot of progress in these areas treatment, screening processes and preventative measures there's still this perception that, yes, if you get it, you're going to die," Moser said.

"We need people getting the message out there that there are plenty of things you can do to prevent cancer or treat it successfully," he said.

Not always deadly

Some relatively uncommon cancers have very high survival rates. For example, the five-year survival rate for thyroid cancer is about 97 percent, according to the American Cancer Society, and the survival rate for endometrial cancer that has not spread to other parts of the body is 95 percent, according to the National Institutes of Health. (Endometrial cancer begins in the lining of the uterus.)

And survival rates for most cancers are rising, Moser said. Between 1975 and 2003, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer increased from about 75 percent to close to 90 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute.

To be sure, cancers do kill. And death rates for some cancers, including melanoma and pancreatic cancer, are on the rise, according to a report released this year by National Cancer Institute and other organizations. Pancreatic cancer is particularly deadly 94 percent of patients diagnosed with the disease die within five years.

But a recent study found the death rates from all cancers combined declined over the last 15 years.

"Across the board, for most cancers, we're seeing a decline in prevalence and an increase in survival," Moser said.

Cancer prevention

The new study also found about 36 percent of Americans said they avoid seeing their doctor even when they suspect they should. And those who said they associate cancer with death were more likely to avoid seeing their doctor.

This is problematic because doctors can be the source of recommendations for cancer screening and prevention methods, Moser said.

Increasing exercise , fruit and vegetable intake, quitting smoking and getting screened for colon cancer after the age of 50 are some of the ways people can take action to prevent cancer, Moser said.

"Up to 50 percent of all cancer cases could be prevented if we just changed people's behavior," he said.

The study was presented last week at the Association for Psychological Science annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Pass it on: Although people may perceive cancer as a death sentence, many types are preventable or treatable.

Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Rachael Rettner on Twitter @RachaelRettner.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.