What is it about cancer that worries people? A population-based survey of adults in England


Session type:


Charlotte Vrinten1,Laura Marlow1,Jo Waller1
1University College London



Many people worry about cancer, which affects their engagement with cancer screening and early diagnosis (Hay et al., 2005).  Worry can be motivating or deterring, depending on the focus of the worry (Consedine et al., 2004).  For example, an undifferentiated fear of getting cancer may facilitate screening to obtain reassurance, while fear of screening outcomes may act as a deterrent.  In this study, we examine the prevalence and population distribution of undifferentiated cancer worry and worries about specific cancer outcomes in the adult population in England.


We conducted a population-based survey of 2,048 adults aged 18-70 years in April 2016. Sociodemographic characteristics, undifferentiated cancer worry, and twelve specific cancer worries adapted from an existing scale, including emotional, physical, and social consequences of a cancer diagnosis (Vickberg, 2003), were assessed in face-to-face interviews.


Just over a third of respondents (38%) never worried about cancer, 55% worried occasionally or sometimes, and 7% often or very often.   About two thirds were ‘quite a bit’ or ‘extremely’ worried about the threat to life and emotional upset caused by a cancer diagnosis.  About half worried about surgery, radiation treatment, chemotherapy, and the loss of control over life.  Worries about the social consequences seemed less prevalent: slightly less than half worried about financial problems or their social roles, while only about a quarter worried about how cancer would affect their identity, important relationships, gender role, and sexuality.  Women and those who were younger worried more about cancer (p<.001).  Ethnic minorities were less worried about the emotional and physical consequences of cancer, but more worried about its social consequences than White British respondents (p<.05).


Insights into people's cancer worries can serve as a starting point for examining how these worries affect early detection behaviours, and help allay undue worries in those who are deterred by them.