Cancer stigma, stereotypes and why you should not be scared to be tested for cancer

One of the biggest threats surrounding cancer today is myths and misconceptions which present a serious public health risk to so many South Africans. As more than 30% of cancers can be prevented by early detection it is crucial to educate people about cancer, risk factors, symptoms and why it is important to have regular cancer screenings. 

One of the most important challenges regarding identifying cancer early, reporting symptoms and receiving treatment is stigma. In a vicious cancer stigma cycle, the biggest contributing factor to believing cancer myths is misinformation. Simply put, misinformation fosters fear, silence, and ignorance which makes it easier for South Africans to isolate themselves from seeking cancer treatment. Negative perceptions regarding cancer leads to patients feeling alone, hinders cancer advocacy/ educational efforts, and ultimately leads to a lack of early diagnosis. 

Types of stigma

How can we debunk cancer myths and stop stigmatisation of cancer patients?

 In a culturally diverse society, cancer is perceived differently by various cultural groups. In some cultures, people believe that only “older” people are prone to a cancer diagnosis. Others believe that by reading about cancer or receiving information about cancer you “invite” it into your life. Cancer is also perceived by many to be a bad omen or a curse while others believe that cancer is incurable. Many men have also been made to believe that an illness can be seen as a sign of weakness, resulting in delays in seeking treatment, or withholding vital information once they do seek treatment. 

A study by Photovoice showed that cancer stigma is one of the biggest contributors to people not reporting/ disclosing cancer symptoms and being afraid or ashamed to seek cancer care. Proactive initiatives like self-examination are also shown to have been hindered by beliefs that it was wrong to touch your own breasts, that breast self-examination may cause cancer, that vaginal bleeding is caused by witchcraft and that cancer is a source of shame or a curse. All the above mentioned have long been found to persuade against help-seeking behaviour and in this study six participants were even abandoned by their partners after being diagnosed with cancer. 

What is evidently clear is that better education around cancer should be introduced at an early stage in schools, communities, and religious institutions. It is also important for the South African healthcare sector to form partnerships with community leaders and traditional healers to eradicate myths surrounding cancer in a national effort to tackle stigmatisation. 

Solid proof of the benefit of awareness-raising efforts came from the Livestrong foundation’s cancer anti-stigma initiative in South Africa in 2011, which was hailed for its value in educating communities, empowering an underserved population, and saving lives. The pilot project, run in three provinces over 18 months included community events, door-to-door campaigns, community health worker training, SMS campaigns, radio call-in shows, and TV and radio public service announcements. It also included collaboration with NGO’s, government, church leaders and traditional healers. 

By the end of the project nearly half of all people who had heard the cancer messages during the study period said they had learnt something new or did something differently in respect of cancer. Respondents views also changed from “cancer is a death sentence” and “it terrifies me”, to “I learned that cancer can be treated” and “I learned to be strong and not feel guilty about the disease I have”. 

By giving people accurate information we can ensure a much earlier cancer diagnosis in the majority of cancer cases and educate South Africans about various cancer organisations able to assist physically, financially, and emotionally while simultaneously addressing stigmatisation. 

One out of every four South Africans will be affected by a cancer diagnosis, whether it is someone they know (Family, friends, colleagues) or themselves being diagnosed. 


UICC (2016). Progress report 2016 Declaration of World Cancer. https://www.uicc.org/sites/main/files/atoms/files/WCDecReport_Exec_Summary.pdf 

Health-E News Service (2013). Cancer still highly stigmatised around the world. https://health-e.org.za/2013/03/21/cancer-still-highly-stigmatised-around-the-world/ 

Edwards, L.B & Greeff, L.E (2017). A descriptive qualitative study of childhood cancer challenges in South Africa: Thematic analysis of 68 photovoice contributions. South African Journal of Oncology. https://sajo.org.za/index.php/sajo/article/view/14 

Venter, M. Venter, C & Botha, K (2012). Cancer Treatment in South Africa: A Narrative Literature Review. Journal of Phycology in Africa. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14330237.2012.10820555 

Livestrong. (2010-2012). Cancer stigma and silence around the world. https://prod-io.livestrong.org/sites/default/files/what-we-do/reports/lsglobalresearchreport.pdf 

Cancer Alliance South Africa (2019). Advocacy Toolkit: Priority Area # 5. Cancer Stigma. https://canceralliance.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/caat5-toolkit-cancer-stigma-slides-v2.pdf 

Cox, M (2021). Removing the stigma around regular breast cancer screenings will go a long way to ensure early detection and treatment. Health, Mammography, Women’s health. https://ks-med.co.za/2021/10/04/removing-the-stigma/ 

Netcare LTD (2020). Prevention and screening is the best defence against cancer. Netcare Cancer Care. https://www.netcare.co.za/Cancer-Care/Prevention-and-Screening 

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