Understanding stigma as a barrier to accessing cancer treatment in South Africa: Implications for public health campaigns

Tatiana Oystacher, Drew Blasco, Emily He, Debbie Huang, Rebekkah Schear, Devon McGoldrick, Bruce Link, Lawrence Hsin Yang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Introduction: 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. Methods: 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. Results: 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. Conclusion: 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number73
JournalPan African Medical Journal
StatePublished - Jan 24 2018


  • Cancer
  • Knowledge
  • Modified labeling theory
  • South Africa
  • Stigma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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