Background: Cancer screening programmes in England are publicly-funded. Professionals' beliefs in the public health benefits of screening can conflict with individuals' entitlements to exercise informed judgement over whether or not to participate. The recognition of the importance of individual autonomy in decision making requires greater understanding of the knowledge, attitudes and beliefs upon which people's screening choices are founded. Until recently, the technology available required that cancer screening be confined to women. This study aimed to discover whether male and female perceptions of cancer and of screening differed.
Methods: Data on the public's cancer beliefs were collected by means of a postal survey (anonymous questionnaire). Two general practices based in Nottingham and in Mansfield, in east-central England, sent questionnaires to registered patients aged 30 to 70 years. 1,808 completed questionnaires were returned for analysis, 56.5 per cent from women.
Results: Women were less likely to underestimate overall cancer incidence, although each sex was more likely to cite a sex-specific cancer as being amongst the most common cancer site. In terms of risk factors, men were most uncertain about the role of stress and sexually-transmitted diseases, whereas women were more likely to rate excessive alcohol and family history as major risk factors. The majority of respondents believed the public health care system should provide cancer screening, but significantly more women than men reported having benefiting from the nationally-provided screening services. Those who were older, in better health or had longer periods of formal education were less worried about cancer than those who had illness experiences, lower incomes, or who were smokers. Actual or potential participation in bowel screening was higher amongst those who believed bowel cancer to be common and amongst men, despite women having more substantial worries about cancer than men.
Conclusion: Our results suggest that men's and women's differential knowledge of cancer correlates with women's closer involvement with screening. Even so, men were neither less positive about screening nor less likely to express a willingness to participate in relevant screening in the future. It is important to understand gender-related differences in knowledge and perceptions of cancer, if health promotion resources are to be allocated efficiently.