Kenneth L Abbott, MD, FACP  |  3/13/2023

Fifty Thousand Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, Can They?

Medscape, an email service for medical news, published some observations on findings from a health practices survey conducted in France two years ago. Many people in France appear to be as confused about lifestyle and cancer risk as are Americans.

Two thirds of survey respondents believe cancer is typically a hereditary disease. At present, hereditary forms of cancer account for just 10 percent of cases. The confusion seems to stem from the interest health care providers show in family history, as well as mistakes about the role of genes in cancer risk. While a person may inherit genetic mutations predisposing her to cancer, she does not inherit the disease itself. Many factors influence an individual’s likelihood of developing cancer. Some hereditary cancer risks can be mitigated through active prevention and early detection. Believing you have inherited a risk for cancer can cause some persons to be fatalistic, foregoing preventative measures with the mistaken idea there’s nothing that can be done.

Cigarette smoking, once almost as French as baguettes, berets, and the Eiffel Tower, is now far less prevalent, for which we are all glad. Misconceptions abound, however. People recognize the cancer risk associated with smoking but seem to believe light smoking or smoking for just a short time (not defined) carries no cancer risk. They believe only heavy, prolonged smoker confers this risk, and it is possible to escape developing cancer if one quits “on time.” Again, no one seems to know just when the danger threshold appears.

Fewer than one in three respondents recognized the link between excessive weight and increased cancer risk. If there is any diet and health interaction, the French confine it mostly to cardiovascular disease, about which they are better informed. Not surprisingly, given the French love of good wine, they exhibit naivete—or at least wishful thinking—about heavy alcohol consumption and cancer. Smoking and drinking are a dangerous combination when it comes to cancer, but alcohol by itself is a cancer-causing chemical.

We two peoples are an ocean apart but subject to the same health errors.
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