SUNY Buffalo Study Shows Perceived Risk for Cancer is Lower among African Americans than Whites

Published October 9, 2014

Heather Orom, PhD, professions assistant professor in the department of community health and health behavior, and colleagues from the University at Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions have published a series of studies in Ethnicity and Health showing that African Americans perceive their risk for getting cancer to be lower compared to Whites, despite cancer incidence being higher among African Americans. In a new study they replicate these findings and also explored reasons African Americans give for their levels of perceived risk. This study is one of a few that have examined minorities’ attributions for their level of perceived risk for cancer.

Results indicate that African Americans may be making some cancer risk attributions that are quite different from those captured in studies of college students or those conducted with primarily White samples. About half of the study’s community sample of 88 African Americans spontaneously explained their responses to cancer risk perception questions. Those who perceived their level of cancer risk to be low often indicated that they did not want to say that their risk was high because they believed this could increase their risk.  For example, one participant stated, “I don’t want to curse myself…” Similarly, others explained that they had said their level of cancer risk was low because they hoped it was low. Other attributions were similar to those noted in previous studies. For example, participants thought their risk was lower if they did not have family history of cancer or engaged in protective behaviors such as not smoking or because they were screened regularly.

Orom comments that, “Although we relied on participants’ spontaneous attributions, and in future studies will want to systematically ask all participants why they perceive their cancer risk to be a certain level, the study is important because it draws attention to the fact that there may be diversity in the way people think about illness risk that is not currently part of our theoretical understanding of the construct. If people think that rating their risk as high could increase the likelihood of getting disease, this not only could partially explain racial/ethnic differences in how people are responding to risk perception questions on national surveys, it also raises questions about whether individuals with these beliefs are receptive to risk-based prevention messaging.”