Many people are in the dark about the risk factors that can lead to cancer, according to a global survey released in Geneva Wednesday.

They either have the wrong idea or don't know about the true causes of the disease, the survey shows.

The report says people should be more careful about their behaviours, such as alcohol consumption, rather than worrying about less important external factors such as the environment.

The international survey is the first of its kind on the topic. It was carried out on behalf of the International Union Against Cancer(UICC).

Researchers interviewed 29,925 people in 29 countries around the world and pointed out key areas where misconceptions could be addressed. The results also offer a comparison between high, middle and low-income countries.

"The survey reveals there are some big unheard messages," Dr. David Hill, president-elect of UICC said. "These kinds of data help us to quantify the differences between countries and to highlight where additional efforts are needed. Some of these countries have rarely had any population survey data to help their program planning efforts."

Five of the leading preventable risk factors, according the UICC:

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Radiation
  • Alcohol
  • Physical Inactivity

Some of the main areas of concern in the survey were people's attitudes towards alcohol, cancer treatment and pollution.

Forty-two percent of those in high-income countries, such as Canada and the United States, did not believe that alcohol increases cancer risk. They believed that factors such as not eating enough fruit and vegetables, stress and air pollution are higher risk factors than consuming alcohol.

Scientists said that the positive effects of fruit and vegetables are lower than the negative effects of alcohol and stress is not recognized as a cause of cancer.

Results show that people in low and middle-income countries, such as Kenya and Mexico were less optimistic about cancer being beatable. Nearly half of the people surveyed in poorer countries said that "not much can be done" or that they didn't know whether anything could be done to cure cancer.

This belief worries scientists because it might stop people from taking part in cancer screening programs, which are a large part of catching the disease early.

People in all countries freely accepted that things outside of their control, such as air pollution, are more likely to cause cancer than those within their control, such as being overweight.

"We know that people need to be given a reason why they should change" Hill said. "They need to be shown how to change; they need to be given resources or support to change; they need to remember to change and they need positive reinforcement for changing. Many of these principles can be applied in designing education programs to encourage and support behaviour change."

Hill said the data collected in the survey will help governments around the world in creating education campaigns to clear up the misconceptions and hopefully save lives.

Scientists are waiting from data from 12 additional countries.