Open Access Research article

The structure and demographic correlates of cancer fear

Charlotte Vrinten1, Cornelia H M van Jaarsveld12, Jo Waller1, Christian von Wagner1 and Jane Wardle1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre, UCL, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK

2 Department of Primary Care and Public Health Sciences, King’s College London, Capital House, 42 Weston Street, London SE1 3QD, UK

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BMC Cancer 2014, 14:597  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-14-597

Published: 16 August 2014



Cancer is often described as the ‘number one’ health fear, but little is known about whether this affects quality of life by translating into high levels of worry or distress in everyday life, or which population groups are most affected. This study examined the prevalence of three components of cancer fear in a large community sample in the UK and explored associations with demographic characteristics.


Questions on cancer fear were included in a survey mailed to a community sample of adults (n = 13,351; 55–64 years). Three items from a standard measure of cancer fear assessed: i) whether cancer was feared more than other diseases, ii) whether thinking about cancer caused discomfort, and iii) whether cancer worry was experienced frequently. Gender, marital status, education, and ethnicity were assessed with simple questions. Anxiety was assessed with the brief STAI and a standard measure of self-rated health was included.


Questionnaire return rate was 60% (7,971/13,351). The majority of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they feared cancer more than other diseases (59%), and felt uncomfortable thinking about it (52%), and a quarter (25%) worried a lot about cancer. All items were significantly inter-correlated (r = .35 to .42, p’s < .001), and correlated with general anxiety (r = .16 to .28, p’s < .001) and self-rated health (r = -.07 to -.16, p’s < .001). In multivariable analyses including anxiety and general health, all cancer fear indicators were significantly higher in women (ORs between 1.15 and 1.48), respondents with lower education (ORs between 1.40 and 1.66), and those with higher general anxiety (ORs between 1.50 and 2.11). Ethnic minority respondents (n = 285; 4.4%) reported more worry (OR: 1.85).


More than half of this older adult sample in the UK had cancer as greatest health fear and this was associated with feeling uncomfortable thinking about it and worrying more about it. Women and respondents with less education or from ethnic minority backgrounds were disproportionately affected by cancer fear. General anxiety and poor health were associated with cancer fear but did not explain the demographic differences.

Cancer fear; Cancer worry; Anxiety; Education; Ethnicity; Gender; STAI; Older adults