Meeting Abstract

What do people fear about cancer? A systematic review and meta-synthesis



Vrinten C, McGregor LM, Heinrich M, Wagner Cv, Waller J, Wardle J & Black GB (2014) What do people fear about cancer? A systematic review and meta-synthesis. The Lancet, 384 (Special Issue 2), p. S12.;

Background Cancer has long inspired fear but the effect of fear on early detection behaviours is not well understood. Quantitative studies suggest a complex association, with fear seeming both to facilitate and to deter early diagnosis behaviours. These inconsistencies might be partly due to the use of general measures that fail to consider whether fear of cancer has many dimensions. The aim of this study was to systematically review and synthesise the qualitative literature to explore the concept of fear of cancer. Methods We searched Medline, Embase, PsychINFO, Web of Science, and Anthrobase from Jan 1, 1992, to June 1, 2013, for qualitative studies published in English using the search terms “cancer” and “fear or worry or anxiety” and “breast or colorectal or cervical cancer screening”. Study quality was assessed but not used as a selection criterion. We took an inclusive approach to extract quotations and authors' interpretations. These excerpts were annotated and discussed among the authors to generate early themes, which were then synthesised into a higher order structure. Findings 78 studies from 23 countries were included (USA 46 [59%], UK 9 [12%], Australia 3 [4%]). Most studies involved breast cancer (41%), followed by colorectal cancer (26%), cervical cancer (23%), or more than one type of cancer (10%). Fears of cancer emanated from a core view of cancer as an unpredictable and indestructible enemy. This enemy evoked four types of fear: fears about its proximity, fears about the (lack of) strategies to keep it at a distance, fears about the personal and social implications of succumbing, and fear of dying from the disease. Interpretation This qualitative meta-synthesis drew out the multidimensionality of fear of cancer with a view of cancer as an enemy at its core, thus reprising the war-on-cancer theme that dominates the media. This enemy has various characteristics that could influence whether fight or flight is most appropriate. The view of cancer as an unpredictable and external threat can discredit messages about early detection, or impede the adoption of preventive health behaviours; future policies should focus on removing mixed messages in the public portrayal of cancer. Although only three types of cancer screening were included, evidence exists for similar fears in other populations.

Output Type: Meeting Abstract

The Lancet: Volume 384, Issue Special Issue 2

FundersCancer Research UK
Publication date31/12/2014
Publication date online19/11/2014
Publisher URL

People (1)


Dr Lesley McGregor

Dr Lesley McGregor

Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Psychology