Cultural Beliefs and Values in Cancer Patients
Culture is defined as a set of shared and socially transmitted ideas about the world that are passed down from generation to generation.
Culture as a socially transmitted phenomenon carries with it the idea that people who interact on a regular basis know the same unwritten rules and criteria for social life that confer status as a member of the group.
When applied to illness, the beliefs and values from a cultural model of disease influence perceptions about the meaning of an illness, the types of treatment that are useful, and the likely outcome of health behaviours related to the prevention and control of disease.
Previous research has demonstrated that world views, as well as their subsequent attitudes, beliefs, and values related to health, differ among ethnically diverse groups. That is why, concerning cancer, cultural beliefs and values are increasingly being recognised as important determinants of not only of cancer prevention and control behaviours but also of psychological and behavioural outcomes following cancer diagnosis and treatment.
According to various studies, cancer-related stigma and myths about cancer, although different from one country to another, are important problems that must be addressed.
Stigmas about various health conditions, including cancer, present significant challenges:
- Stigma can have a silencing effect, whereby efforts to increase cancer awareness are negatively affected.
- Myths and stigma can affect individual’s behaviours, meaning that they are less likely to adopt cancer-risk-reducing behaviours or seek out the support and services they need when they are diagnosed with the disease.
- The social, emotional, and financial devastation that all too often accompanies a diagnosis of cancer is, in large part, due to the cultural myths and taboos surrounding the disease.
The Myths and Perception of Cancer
There are several reasons that cancer is stigmatised and just as many myths about cancer and the treatment of cancer.
Many individuals still perceive cancer as a fatal disease, and the perception that cancer is contagious is also still widely believed.
Cancer symptoms or body parts affected by the disease can cultivate stigma; cervical cancer, for instance, is highly stigmatised because the cervix is ‘the part of the body you don’t speak about’.
Similarly, gynaecological or breast cancers also carry a stigma, and may present symptoms that women are reluctant to disclose to their doctors, even less to undergo the necessary physical examinations to find the cause of the problems.
In many cultures cancer is seen as being a punishment and the person who gets cancer is ostracised by the community as well as by the family. Sometimes the family do not ostracise the patient but may isolate them for fear of what others may think or say and also because of the fear that cancer is contagious. Isolation, denial, or a feeling of being ignored is not good for the patient and this is when cancer care professionals must play a critical role in supporting the patient.
Fears about treatment can also fuel stigma. Patients are often reluctant to undergo surgery because they believe ‘if you cut into the cancer, it will spread immediately all over the body’.
Cancer treatment is also often a financially devastating burden to the family, even when there is government help, because that help does not cover all the extras a cancer diagnosis brings, such as care, special food, some medications, medical equipment, hygiene products, transport to and from clinics or hospitals, and accommodation for the carer where necessary.
There is also often the perception in various cultures that an individual that has been diagnosed with cancer is too ill to be employed, and this often makes it difficult for individuals with a cancer history to return to work after an illness-related absence, or to try to secure new employment.
How Do We Combat Stigma, Myths, and Taboos?
Combating stigma, myths, taboos, and overcoming silence will play important roles in changing this provisional trajectory. While cancer continues to carry a significant amount of stigma, myths, and taboos around the world, there are opportunities to capitalise upon shifting perceptions and positive change:
Awareness is the ‘number one’ strategy to improve cancer prevention and control. Awareness of cancer prevention, early detection, treatment, and survival are on the rise; however, too many individuals still feel uninformed when it comes to cancer;
Communication is critical to decreasing cancer-related stigma, raising cancer awareness, and disseminating cancer education:
- People need guidance in understanding that cancer is a complex disease and media coverage can go a long way in promoting a reduction of cancer-related stigma by providing information on topics such as:
- Declines in cancer incidence;
- Improvements in screening and early detection;
- Treatment options;
- Palliative care;
- Cancer survivorship;
- Government efforts in cancer prevention and control;
- New research or funding devoted to cancer; and
- Cancer-related activism
- People with a personal history of cancer—especially well-known or celebrity survivors—and multiple mass-media channels are key resources for dissemination.
- The school system represents a potential venue for cancer education, and increasing cancer awareness among children may be an investment with high returns.
- When facing cancer, people around the world want information and emotional support for themselves and their families, and training journalists on cancer myths and health reporting is a good way to breaking down cancer myths and misconceptions.
- We need to strengthen patient advocacy in international settings to build a global grassroots movement having accurate perceptions of cancer; to prevent stigma from inhibiting people in their cancer control efforts; to help people affected by cancer receive the support, services, and information they need; all of which will help in decreasing the global cancer burden
- Tobacco use and poor nutrition are widely acknowledged as cancer risks. Programs and policies that help people translate this awareness into action are needed.
At the end of the day, the only way to stop thousands if not millions dying from a disease from which they need not necessarily die, is to educate them about what they can do to avoid getting cancer, the giant leaps that have been made in cancer treatment, and the fact that millions of cancer patients have survived the disease and are living healthy, fruitful lives decades later.