Annals of Behavioral Medicine

, Volume 50, Issue 5, pp 784–788 | Cite as

“I don’t know” My Cancer Risk: Implications for Health Behavior Engagement

  • Erika A. WatersEmail author
  • Marc T. Kiviniemi
  • Heather Orom
  • Jennifer L. Hay
Brief Report



Many people report uncertainty about their cancer risk. We examined whether such uncertainty was related to cancer prevention and detection behaviors.


National Health Interview Survey data from 2005 to 2010 were analyzed. Participants reported their perceived risk for colorectal and breast cancers. Responses were coded as “valid” (i.e., less/as/more likely than average) or “don’t know.”


In bivariate analyses for both cancer sites and survey years, “don’t know” responders (DKR) engaged in less physical activity than “valid” responders (p < 0.05). DKR had lower mammography adherence than “valid” responders in 2005 and lower colorectal screening adherence in 2010 (p < 0.05). DKR had marginally lower colorectal screening adherence and fruit/vegetable consumption in 2005 (p < 0.06). Multivariable models indicated that the DKR–behavior relationship could be largely accounted for by education.


Interventions that help people understand their cancer risk may provide particular benefit to people with low education and might consequently reduce health disparities.


Risk perception Colon cancer Breast cancer Health disparities 


Compliance with ethical standards

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.


This research was supported by funding from NIH grant R03CA177775 (PI: Waters).

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© The Society of Behavioral Medicine 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Washington University in St. LouisSt. LouisUSA
  2. 2.Division of Public Health Sciences, Department of SurgeryWashington University School of MedicineSt. LouisUSA
  3. 3.State University of New YorkBuffaloUSA
  4. 4.Memorial Sloan KetteringNew YorkUSA

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