One in five people fears getting cancer more than losing their job, debt, Alzheimer's disease and having a heart attack, according to a poll.
More than one in three (34%) believe cancer is down to fate and there is nothing they can do to reduce the risk.
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The survey of more than 2,000 people was carried out for Cancer Research UK.
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Asked to choose from a list of what they feared most - including Alzheimer's, debt, old age, being the victim of knife crime, cancer, a plane crash, motor neurone disease, a car accident, a heart attack or losing a job or home - more people (20%) chose cancer over anything else.
Some 41% of people aged 55 to 64 also thought there was nothing they could do to cut the risk.
Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK's director of health information, said: "The fear factor is a serious wake-up call for the British public.
"It's absolutely vital for us to get the message out that people can do something to alleviate their emphatic fear of cancer.
"Cancer is no longer the death sentence people still seem to dread.
"Long-term survival has doubled since the 70s thanks to better diagnosis, improved treatments and the development of nationwide screening programmes for breast, bowel and cervical cancers.
"Spotting early signs and symptoms of what could be cancer - but probably isn't - and getting these checked out by a doctor means that the disease can be diagnosed more quickly.
"When cancer is diagnosed early then treatment is more likely to be effective with a better chance of long-term survival."
Professor Sir Mike Richards, the Government's national clinical director for cancer, said: "The results of this survey show how important it is to get the message across that cancer can often be treatable if diagnosed early.
"That's why we are launching a campaign in January to raise awareness of the early signs and symptoms of breast, lung and bowel cancer and encourage people to seek medical advice as soon as possible."