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December 31, 2018

Penn Medicine survey helps people create goals for reducing cancer risk

OncoLink seeks to help people better understand steps they can take to avoid the big 'C'

Prevention Cancer
Breast_Cancer_Screening_Photo Press Association/PA Images/Sipa USA

A consultant analyzes a mammogram for breast cancer in this file photo from 2006.

OncoLink – an online cancer resource center run by Penn Medicine – has released an updated survey designed to help people better understand the steps they can take to reduce their risk of cancer.

The online survey, now dubbed "Reduce My Risk," was relaunched in early December. The five-minute survey asks users a series of health-related questions before compiling a risk report that includes recommendations for mitigating their risk.

With the New Year upon us, OncoLink Managing Editor Carolyn Vachani hopes the survey helps people generate some healthy resolutions.

"Hopefully, they can make a few goals for themselves," she said. "Maybe it's starting eating differently or getting more activity in their day, trying to lose a little weight. Something as simple as having your house tested for radon. I don't think people realize that radon is the No. 2 cause of lung cancer."

The survey provides users with a list of specific, at-risk cancers based on the information they provided during the survey. 

It emphasizes the positive actions that the users are taking before recommending steps to reduce risk. It also includes a section detailing how the user's family medical history impacts their own risk.

But the survey does not attempt to quantify the percentage risk. 

That's too subjective, Vachani said, noting some people might view a 50 percent risk as alarming while others would take that as a positive outlook. Plus, it's nearly impossible to do with any accuracy.

"Nobody can really tell you that," Vachani said. "They may be able to tell you an estimate of your risk to get breast cancer, but they can't tell you for cancer in general. Because it's really hundreds of different diseases."


OncoLink first launched its online survey seven years ago, initially calling it "What's My Risk?" 

The updated survey aims to help people approach cancer prevention from a different angle, Vachani said. Rather than focus on a person's risk for getting certain cancers, it attempts to steer users toward taking actions to prevent them.

"So many of them, you can do something about," Vachani said. "They estimate that 30 percent of cancer is caused by people being overweight and inactive. There's so much focus on smoking and unhealthy lifestyles, but so many of us are overweight.

"We have sedentary jobs. We sit here everyday and do our work," she added. "Maybe we do a little exercise in the evening. Being active all day is better than going to the gym for an hour each night."

Women can lower their risk for breast and endometrial cancers through regular exercise, Vachani said. Likewise, men can reduce their risk for prostate cancer and all adults can mitigate their risk for colorectal cancer. 

Penn researchers have a New Year's resolution of their own. In the next year, they hope to enroll people in a study that periodically contacts participants after they have taken the survey. The goal? To learn whether users act on any of the survey's recommendations.

"We gave you all these suggestions on how to reduce these risks," Vachani said. "Now, what have you done with them?"

Take the OncoLink "Reduce My Risk" survey here.

The survey does not ask users for any personally identifiable information. Users may email their risk report to themselves, but Penn Medicine does not store their email address.

Launched in 1994, OncoLink was the first cancer information website on the Internet. It continues to provide information regarding cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery.

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