"It may be surprising for some people to hear about this, but it's not surprising to me or for many doctors who confront patients with (cancer)," said lead researcher Dr. Mitchell Margolis, director of clinical medicine at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Doctors administered a voluntary and anonymous questionnaire to 626 patients at Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Charleston, S.C., clinics specializing in lung diseases and lung tumors. The questionnaire was given at five urban outpatient facilities between 1999 and 2000.
The study appears in Tuesday's Annals of Internal Medicine.
Of the 38 percent who said they believed that cancer spreads when exposed to air, 24 percent said they would reject lung cancer surgery based on that belief. Nineteen percent said they would reject surgery even if their doctor told them the belief had no scientific basis.
Margolis — who said he got the idea for the survey after hearing the myth repeated by a "disconcerting number" of patients — said the respondents were largely middle-aged and elderly men.
Asked where they learned about the perceived link, respondents said they couldn't recall or gave vague answers such as "the gossip mill," the study says.
Dr. Alfred Munzer, past president of the American Lung Association, said he had not heard a patient link air exposure to tumor growth, but noted that such "folk beliefs" are not uncommon, especially among minorities, the poor and the uneducated.
"The overall message here is the importance of cultural sensitivity among health care providers in general, a greater awareness of what people's fears are, and being able to listen for them," said Munzer, a lung specialist at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, Md.
By Joann Loviglio