Understanding stigma as a barrier to accessing cancer treatment in South Africa: implications for public health campaigns
Tatiana Oystacher1, Drew Blasco2, Emily He3,
Debbie Huang4, Rebekkah Schear5, Devon McGoldrick5,
Bruce Link6, Lawrence Hsin Yang2,4,&
1Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago, Chicago, United States, 2College of Global Public Health, New York University, New York, United States, 3Frances L Hiatt School of Psychology, Clark University, Worcester, United States, 4Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York, United States, 5Livestrong Foundation, Austin, United States, 6Department of Sociology, University of California, Riverside, United States
Lawrence Hsin Yang, College of Global Public Health, New York University, New York, United States, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York, United States
cancer contributes to significant illness burden in South Africa, with delayed diagnosis resulting from limited knowledge of cancer, lack of biomedical treatment and stigma. This study examines ways in which people are identified as having cancer through perspectives of traditional healing or the biomedical model. Additionally, we sought to understand the stigma associated with cancer, including stereotypes, anticipated discrimination and coping styles.
Livestrong Foundation conducted 11 semi-structured focus groups with key
community stakeholders in three South African townships. Interviews examined
the negative consequences of being labeled with a cancer diagnosis as well as
causes of, possible prevention of and barriers and methods to improve access
to cancer treatment. Analyses were completed using directed content analysis.
interviews revealed three main labeling mechanisms: physical appearance of perceived signs/symptoms of cancer, diagnosis by a traditional healer, or a biomedical diagnosis by a Western physician. Being labeled led to anticipated discrimination in response to prevalent cancer stereotypes. This contributed to delayed treatment, use of traditional healers instead of biomedical treatment and secrecy of symptoms and/or diagnosis. Further, perceptions of cancer were commonly conflated with HIV/TB owing to prior educational campaigns.
our study deepens the understanding of the cancer labeling process in South Africa and the resulting negative effects of stigma. Future anti-stigma interventions should partner with traditional healers due to their respected community status and consider how previous health interventions may significantly impact current understandings of illness.
Cancer stigma in South Africa: cancer is one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality globally . In Africa, about 700,000 people are diagnosed with cancer annually with 47,400 cases resulting in death . The American Cancer Society  identified that the majority of deferred cancer diagnoses in Africa resulted from limited awareness of early signs of cancer, lack of biomedical screening and stigma. Cancer stigma often originates from cultural stereotypes that cancer is a fatal disease, is contagious, or is a punishment for immoral behavior [3, 4]. Additionally, cancer stigma has received less attention than communicable disease stigma (e.g. HIV/AIDS) . Further, severe stigma associated with cancer has likely contributed to delays in biomedical treatment . Social consequences of being labeled with a cancer diagnosis (e.g. shame) may deter use of biomedical screening, resulting in treatment delays [6-8]. Public education campaigns to increase knowledge and decrease stigma are crucial in promoting prevention and treatment of cancer in South Africa [9, 10]. Implementing interventions in culturally sensitive ways can enhance the reach of educational messages [11, 12] and increase adherence with treatment . Additionally, successful strategies may include partnering with traditional healers. This has been used to increase diffusion of information regarding HIV/AIDS awareness. In South Africa, estimates range from 60% of people consulting traditional healers  to approximately 50% consulting both biomedical providers and traditional healers . South African healers are critical advisors in the use of healthcare in their communities [16-21]. Understanding misconceptions about cancer and best practices to deliver culturally-appropriate educational messages is crucial for successful implementation of educational campaigns. This study investigates cancer stigma as a barrier to help-seeking within a South African community. Additionally, we seek to address a gap regarding knowledge of cultural stereotypes around cancer, common stigmatizing conceptions and range of discriminatory experiences. Our findings may inform interventions aimed to raise awareness, increase biomedical screenings and treatment for those diagnosed with cancer.
Study and theoretical framework
: this paper presents data collected from 2010-2012 in three South African towns prior to Livestrong Foundation's public education efforts to reduce cancer stigma. We utilize Link and Phelan's [22
] "Modified Labeling Theory" as a framework to understand local cancer stereotypes and mechanisms in which stigma manifests. We utilized three concepts (i.e. stereotyping, anticipated discrimination and coping mechanisms) from this framework to understand how individuals are stigmatized and excluded from everyday interactions. Primarily, Link and Phelan's framework has been used to examine mental illness stigma and applied to conditions of HIV [23
], obesity [25
] and hepatitis C [27
]. We propose extending this theory to the illness condition of cancer, which has been relatively understudied [23
]. We explore differences in how South African respondents may use local understandings of cancer in contrast to the biomedical model. We also examine ways in which stigma may manifest through different labeling processes as applied to cancer. For example, labeling may occur through formal Western diagnoses, diagnosis by traditional healers, or showing cancer symptoms. Given the prominence of traditional healing in South Africa, we seek to understand how traditional medical practices may be connected to stereotypes and stigma toward cancer and how avoidance of Western treatment labeling may influence use of treatment services. Additionally, we seek to illuminate predominant coping strategies arising from a cancer diagnosis such as withdrawal, secrecy, or how anticipating discrimination may deter someone from biomedical treatment. Finally, we utilize a rare opportunity to analyze the unexamined connection between HIV and cancer stigma in South Africa as a potential effect of prior national stigma reduction efforts for HIV [28-32
Study design: the livestrong foundation interviewed more than 4,500
healthcare providers, cancer survivors, NGOs and experts across 10
countries. Results compelled the Livestrong Foundation to conduct
a pilot anti-stigma
campaign in South Africa from 2010-2012. Prior to this cancer education
campaign, Livestrong Foundation conducted a series of qualitative
interviews and focus
groups with key community stakeholders to understand cultural conceptions
of cancer stigma which we report upon here.
: eleven semi-structured focus groups were conducted in three peri-urban townships within South Africa: Khayelitsha, Soweto, and East London. Townships held focus groups consisting of: traditional healers (3 groups, n = 21 participants); church groups (3 groups, n = 29 participants), non-government organizations (NGOs) (2 groups, n = 33 participants); community leaders, including political leaders and members of community health forums (3 groups, n = 37 participants). Age range of church leaders and traditional healers was 55-75 years, while the age range in other groups was 26-65 years. To encourage open disclosure concerning potentially highly stigmatizing personal, family, or community experiences of stigma, no other personal information was collected. Semi-structured interviews focused on the following: causes of and possible ways of preventing cancer, contact with someone diagnosed with cancer and treatment of cancer patients by the community. In addition, focus group participants discussed how one would be treated and what a person would do/feel if he/she was diagnosed with cancer. Other topics queried included: the role of media in disseminating cancer knowledge, barriers to help-seeking and how access to prevention and treatment might be improved. Follow-up questions were asked as appropriate. All focus group interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed by South African transcription services. Data analysis was approved by the Columbia University Medical Center Institutional Review Board.
: we based our analytic scheme on Link and Phelan's [21
] multidimensional model of stigma. We examined ways cancer stigma might cohere and differ, with key stigma components (i.e. labeling, anticipated discrimination and coping mechanism), which have been predictive of negative outcomes [33-36
]. Using directed content analysis [37
], we sought to validate and extend conceptual frameworks for cancer-related stigma. Following Link and Phelan's framework as a guide, we first determined analytical schema and initial coding categories. Three research team members (T.O, D.H, E.H) and the principle investigator (L.Y.) coded the 11 focus group transcripts using the initial coding scheme. First, one transcript of each respondent type (traditional healers, NGO's, community leaders) was group-coded to modify initial coding categories. After establishing consensus, each remaining transcript was coded independently by all research team members and any discrepancies discussed. Initial coding categories were modified based on discovery of conceptual relationships between codes (e.g, merging subcodes that represented different aspects of a single coding category). While following a deductive framework, the codebook was expanded inductively to account for new concepts which arose due to culturally-specific experiences of cancer in South Africa. Discrepancies in codes were resolved during consensus meetings. The final codebook is shown Annex 1
. Transcripts were analyzed using ATLAS-TI.
General cancer knowledge and stereotypes: respondents' cancer knowledge
varied from no previous knowledge to some knowledge of risk factors, etiology,
treatment and prognosis. Respondents cited knowledge of common cancers and
risk factors (i.e smoking, drinking, unhealthy lifestyles and excessive sun
exposure). Multiple stakeholders characterized cancer as deadly and incurable,
leading to fear of diagnosis, hopelessness and depression (Table
1). However, some respondents reported cancer being curable in the
early stages. They named methods of medical treatment-"being ironed" (getting
chemotherapy) or "being burned" (getting radiotherapy)-and accompanying side
effects, such as nausea, difficulty eating and hair loss. Yet multiple groups
of respondents revealed uncertainty about causes, transmission and treatment
1). Respondents identified four prominent stereotypical causes for
cancer: "physical contagion", "witchcraft", "influence of the culture of White
colonizers" (i.e, adopting their diets) and "sexuality/promiscuity". This
last cause included early pregnancy, multiple childbirths and even breastfeeding
1). These prominent stereotypes often led to anticipated discrimination.
: stemming from these stereotypes, the most prominent topic concerned anticipated discrimination/devaluation. In addition to providing examples of discrimination against people with cancer by community members, respondents also predicted that they themselves would discriminate against their relatives/partners with cancer (Table 2
Cancer linked to physical contagion, sexuality and promiscuity and witchcraft
: the belief that cancer is contagious was a source of anticipated discrimination and isolation. Traditional healers and a church respondent discussed fear of contracting cancer through contact with cancer patients (Table 2
). This belief resulted in avoidance of sharing items, proving separate bedding and tableware (Table 2
). Notably, how a person was treated by their family could influence the attitudes of community members (Table 2
). Multiple stakeholder groups endorsed stereotypes that cancer was caused by sexual promiscuity, was linked with cancer of reproductive areas and was acknowledged as punishment for immoral behavior (Table 2
). Stereotypes that cancer may be sexually transmitted caused significant shame and justified ending a relationship. Finally, witchcraft stereotypes were attributable to the cancer resulting from a "curse" and someone wishing harm to a "bewitched" person (Table 2
Regardless of stereotype, cancer patients experienced a range of discriminatory occurrences from being perceived as burdensome (Table 2
) to being isolated from both their family and broader social network (Table 2
). Participants feared they would face severe forms of social discrimination from being labeled as a cancer patient.
Mechanisms of Labeling
: analyses indicated ways in which a person acquired the label of a "cancer patient", some of which were more definitive than others: 1) labeling through appearance of perceived signs or symptoms of cancer, or treatment side effects; 2) cancer diagnosis from a traditional healer; 3) cancer diagnosis by a western physician.
Signs and symptoms of cancer or effects of cancer treatment
: respondents named signs and symptoms leading to identification of a person as having cancer in the absence of a medical diagnosis. These included lumps on different parts of the body (including "abnormal things on private parts"), "problems with the throat" (e.g, difficulties swallowing, stabbing pain in the throat, coughing and having a lot of phlegm), visible weight loss and energy loss. Respondents also mentioned back pains and unpleasant odor coming from affected individuals. Further, participants identified cancer signs related to side effects of Western treatments, such as temperature changes, nausea, hair loss and in the case of breast cancer, extirpation of a breast (Table 3
Diagnosis by traditional healers
: according to traditional healers' perspectives, they are frequently utilized as healthcare providers first because of their easy access in communities (Table 3
) and their perceived efficacy (Table 3
), especially when cancer is believed to be caused by witchcraft (Table 3
). Use of traditional healers may enable avoidance of the perceived invasiveness of Western cancer treatment (Table 3
). While dissenting views existed, cancer diagnosis "labeling" was not as definitive when provided by a traditional healer. Instead, some traditional healer respondents reported that they could not provide a formal cancer diagnosis, thereby referring individuals to western doctors for diagnosis using biotechnology (Table 3
: the most definitive "labeling" method was receiving a diagnosis from a western physician. This labeling process was initiated by cancer screenings at the clinic and culminated in receiving a biomedical diagnosis. While initiating beneficial biomedical treatment, this label also elicited the above cancer stereotypes. Multiple stakeholders cited that an official biomedical diagnosis (and biomedical treatment) was associated with fear, avoidance of treatment and rejection from others (Table 3
Coping mechanisms in response to labeling and anticipated discrimination
: several coping mechanisms, or ways those "labeled" as having cancer responded to their stigmatized status, were identified. Secrecy was the most common response. Participants provided examples of cancer patients refraining from disclosing the disease to their families or community until it was terminal. Multiple stakeholder groups cited that secrecy from family members was attributable to lack of knowledge of the signs/symptoms of cancer, fear of death, shame, concern about being laughed at or feared and fear of witchcraft (Table 4
). Additionally, participants reported individuals with cancer might be afraid of stigma and discrimination from their families, spouses and community (Table 4
). Less frequently mentioned were negative coping strategies of denial or withdrawal (i.e. not performing checkups due to not knowing what might be discovered or of being diagnosed with what is perceived as an incurable disease) (Table 4
). Respondents openly discussed whether cancer may be treatable during its early stages. Additionally, they identified that being secretive and not seeking prompt treatment may lead to worse health outcomes. Less frequently, multiple stakeholder groups suggested openness, acceptance and self-education as positive ways of coping with a cancer diagnosis (Table 4
). While less common, these provide examples of more effective coping strategies that might be built upon for future interventions.
Stigma's impact on accessing treatment
: multiple stakeholder groups revealed distrust toward western health services or a lack of understanding of biomedical procedures, leading to fear. Several traditional healers and church leaders blamed western medical epistemology for misdiagnosis, inability to help and even for unethical experimentation on Black people. Additionally, NGO and community leader groups expressed concern that western medical professionals were not providing sufficient accurate information to communities (Table 5
). Although direct stigma perpetuated by individual health providers and/or organizations of power (e.g. employers, government agencies, hospitals) were not observed, these commonly-held perspectives portrayed Western modes of treatment and of understanding disease, as an extension of an oppressive, colonialist government. This not only had negative consequences for early detection and treatment but also was seen as a tool to suppress the Black population (Table 5
The lack of consistency about the role of traditional healers in cancer treatment contributed to a disconnect between traditional healing and Western medicine. Therefore, even when traditional healers were utilized, patients might not be referred to western biomedical treatment. NGO groups and church healers held more pessimistic views towards traditional healing. NGO groups cited traditional healers as being detrimental to public health. Church leaders spoke about their belief that information provided by traditional healers often delayed Western medical diagnosis (Table 5
). Community leaders rarely expressed negative views of traditional medicine and recognized the frequent use of it as a response to lack of biomedical information or mistrust of Western medicine (Table 5
). Traditional healers saw themselves as valuable partners in the cancer-treatment process due to their accessibility in the local community and ability to facilitate referrals. Some of them expressed the desire to augment their own knowledge with Western medical knowledge. However, traditional healers were also concerned that Western providers would not cross-refer to them and that they were not recognized as legitimate by the biomedical field (Table 5
HIV/TB education campaigns and future cancer campaigns
: past education campaigns such as with HIV/AIDS and TB made promoting education and reducing stigma around cancer more complex. Participants identified the success achieved by involving multiple community and healthcare organizations in HIV and TB awareness campaigns, thus laying a foundation for cancer education. First, multiple stakeholder groups stated that previous campaigns established methods of outreach including community screening (Table 6
), workshops (Table 6
) and involving churches (Table 6
) and youth in community education (Table 6
). Second, members of church groups cited valuable outreach strategies including nurses entering communities to provide education regarding symptoms and check-ups (Table 6
) and implementing testing for both HIV and cancer (Table 6
). Third, prior campaigns have made significant efforts to access hard-to-reach populations by using appropriate idioms understood by the community (Table 6
). Finally, delivery of an educational and anti-stigma campaign for cancer could be modeled after prior HIV campaigns, which have focused on showing real people successfully fighting HIV (Table 6
Conflation of beliefs about cancer with beliefs about HIV/TB
: the after
effect of prior campaigns also appeared to have an unintended consequence of
conflation of HIV/AIDS and TB with cancer among community members. Multiple stakeholder
groups were unable to differentiate between the symptoms of HIV/AIDS and cancer
Multiple respondents stated that because a cancer diagnosis is perceived by the
community as eliciting the same deadliness as HIV/AIDS, a cancer diagnosis may
lead to comparable negative responses, including isolation and abandonment (Table
). However, comparisons with HIV/AIDS may also be beneficial. An NGO
group respondent stated that reducing stigma for HIV contributed to reducing
cancer stigma (Table
). Multiple stakeholder groups, however, perceived structural discrimination
against providing cancer education due to the healthcare system's focus on information
and access to HIV/AIDS and TB prevention and treatment (Table
Use of media
: media outreach, including television, radio, or newspapers,
was identified as a central way to educate people about cancer. Multiple stakeholder
groups emphasized stories of real people and celebrities who spoke about their
experience fighting cancer (Annex 2
factual information about causes, symptoms, course and treatment methods were
lacking (Annex 2
). Multiple stakeholder groups
cited that previous HIV educational programs had successfully used community
outreach through local churches, schools, and traditional healers, which could
be leveraged for providing biomedical information and antistigmatizing messages
about cancer (Annex 2
Our study identifies three distinct ways community members may be labeled with a cancer diagnosis. We further identify the resulting anticipated discrimination and negative coping mechanisms employed, including secrecy. Our study builds on previous research illustrating the negative consequences of being labeled, including delays in accessing biomedical treatment in South Africa [4, 7, 8]. Respondents named a variety of signs and symptoms perceived to be caused by cancer leading to a cancer label, even in the absence of a biomedical diagnosis. Generally, while respondents agreed that diagnosis by a biomedical physician was the most definitive owing to biotechnology, this label also elicited fear due to negative stereotypes and potential rejection by other community members. Participants often deemed a diagnosis provided by a traditional healer as less conclusive. Traditional healers were often utilized by community members due to etiological beliefs of witchcraft, their accessibility, their perceived effectiveness in treating cancer and the lack of invasiveness of traditional treatment. Further, we found evidence that negative stereotypes corresponded with anticipated discrimination and the desire to be secretive regarding one's diagnosis. Although these links were not explicitly stated, these findings are consistent with empirical studies of Modified Labeling Theory [33, 34, 36], which demonstrate that these processes are interlinked. Finally, this study highlights an unexplored finding; namely, that previous HIV interventions may unintentionally act as a significant source of etiological misunderstanding and an additional source of stigma in South African communities (see below).
Because of the stigma elicited by a biomedical diagnosis of cancer and mistrust of Western hospitals, a powerful theme emerged whereby some respondents indicated a preference for traditional healing. While dissenting views existed, some community members believed in the efficacy of traditional healers to treat cancer. Our results are generally consistent with studies showing that traditional healers are utilized first due to their accessibility [13-21
]. Future education campaigns might involve traditional healers in the process of identifying those who may benefit from cancer treatment, and may act as key referral sources for biomedical practitioners. To capitalize on some traditional healers' interest in increasing knowledge of Western medicine, we propose that partnerships between traditional healers and Western physicians may increase referrals to Western biomedical treatment. Developing these partnerships may also allow space for cultural interpretations of illness. Future studies might also examine whether integration of traditional healers into medical services is associated with greater access to treatment, and less stigma. Due in part to the prior implementation of educational campaigns to address HIV, multiple stakeholder groups conflated symptomatology of HIV with cancer symptoms. Our findings build on a prior study where confusion between HIV symptoms and diabetes was reported among comorbid patients in Cameroon [13
]. In our study sample, increased stigma appeared to result from beliefs concerning the interconnectedness of HIV/AIDS and cancer, the inability of participants to differentiate between these illnesses and the relative lower institutional priority given to cancer education. Additional cancer stigma due to conflation of stereotypes of deadliness associated with HIV may contribute to negative consequences, including social isolation. Yet positive aspects of prior HIV/AIDS education campaigns also emerged. Due to the perceived similarity of these two illnesses, instances of stigma reduction around HIV/AIDS sometimes also led to reduction of stigma for cancer.
Additionally, multiple stakeholder groups cited successful approaches for community outreach for future cancer campaigns, including community screening, workshops and involvement of churches and youth in educating communities. Other than the prior cited study [13
], few studies to our knowledge have examined the effects of campaigns following prior educational efforts. To maximize efficacy, future campaigns should take into consideration: a) prior outreach methods; b) preexisting knowledge of other illnesses; c) and how education around new illnesses might interact with preexisting knowledge. Our findings should be considered in light of several limitations. First, data collection occurred in a small community in South Africa and thus cannot be generalized outside this context. Additionally, to protect participants' confidentiality and reduce the possibility of social desirability when inquiring about stigma, limited demographic information was collected. Finally, interviews were conducted at one time point prior to the implementation of the stigma education campaign; we are therefore unable to examine potential changes in stigma during the campaign. This study has several strengths, including the use of qualitative methodology to more thoroughly understand the nuanced nature of stigma. We recruited a sample of diverse stakeholders including traditional healers, church groups, NGOs, community and political leaders and members of community health forums, allowing for a broader sampling of perspectives. Further, to our knowledge, excluding studies examining this issue in connection to cervical cancer [4
], this is one of the first studies to examine cancer stigma in South Africa. Finally, this study draws on Link and colleagues Modified Labeling Theory and thus we propose the possible extension of this framework to a new illness condition.
In conclusion, our study advances the literature by demonstrating the significant negative effects of cancer stigma in South Africa. Using Link and colleagues Modified Labeling Theory, we identified three distinct ways individuals may be labeled with a cancer diagnosis. Consideration of these three labeling mechanisms and their resulting outcomes is important when designing future educational interventions. Future campaigns should examine the possibility of including traditional healers as key collaborators for cancer treatment to increase community member referrals, with the ultimate goal of increasing uptake of biomedical treatment. Finally, when designing new community education campaigns, the potential impact of previous campaigns should be carefully considered.
What is known about this topic
- Cancer is a significant cause of morbidity and mortality in Africa;
- Stigma of cancer and the social consequences of being labeled as a cancer patient are causes of delayed diagnosis and treatment;
- There have been limited studies in South Africa on cancer stigma; however, prior studies of HPV and Pap-smear awareness campaigns have indicated stigmatizing views toward individuals with cancer.
What this study adds
- An in-depth understanding of the three most prevalent ways in which one may be labeled with a cancer diagnosis in the community, and the consequences of stigma that result from: 1) biomedical diagnosis via a Western physician; 2) appearance of cancer symptoms or treatment side effects; 3) diagnosis by a traditional healer;
- Partnering with traditional healers, who are important gatekeepers in the community, may lead to better community outreach, increased biomedical referrals and greater uptake of biomedical treatment for cancer, resulting in better illness outcomes;
- The importance of understanding the public health impact of how previously-implemented educational campaigns (e.g regarding HIV) may affect current knowledge uptake regarding educational campaigns about cancer.
The authors declare no competing interest.
Tatiana Oystacher analyzed and interpreted the data, conducted the
literature search, wrote the first draft, commented on the intellectual
content, provided extensive revisions to the manuscript and reviewed and
approved the manuscript for publication. Lawrence Hsin Yang conceptualized
the study write-up, analyzed and interpreted the data including providing
the conceptual framework for the analyses and results, commented on intellectual
content, provided extensive revisions to all drafts of the manuscript and
reviewed and approved the manuscript for publication. Drew Blasco interpreted
data, conducted the literature search, commented on intellectual content,
provided extensive revisions to the manuscript, and reviewed and approved
the manuscript for publication. Emily He analyzed and interpreted the data,
contributed to the first draft, commented on intellectual content and approved
the manuscript for publication. Debbie Huang analyzed and interpreted the
data, contributed to the first draft, commented on intellectual content
and approved the manuscript for publication. Rebekkah Schear coordinated
the data collection, commented on intellectual content and approved the
manuscript for publication. Devon McGoldrick coordinated the data collection,
commented on intellectual content and approved the manuscript for publication.
Bruce Link made substantial contributions to interpretation of data, advised
on the concept and design of the study, commented on intellectual content
and approved the manuscript for publication.
Work on this project was supported by Livestrong Foundation.
Debbie Huang's participation in this study was supported by the grant NIH
T32 MH013043 (Mailman School of Public Health Columbia University Psychiatry
Epidemiology Training Program).
Table 1: knowledge and stereotypes of cancer
Table 2: devaluation and discrimination
Table 3: labeling process
Table 4: coping mechanisms and emotional response
Table 5: services and treatment
Table 6: interrelation between beliefs about cancer and HIV
Annex 1: final coding protocol
Annex 2: recommendations from respondents
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