Study reveals misconceptions behind cancer causes

A study has highlighted the distortions behind the causes of cancer prevalent in Samoa and called for action to address the misconceptions in order to save lives.

The study was based on the results of a survey, which was run by the Samoa Cancer Society between February 2017 and April 2018, and targeted 205 respondents comprising both males and females across all age groups form over 100 villages including 17 from Savai’i.

It is titled “Beliefs about cancer causation in Samoa: results from an awareness campaign recall survey.”

The findings of the survey were published in Volume 21 Issue 1 of James Cook University’s Rural and Remote Health Journal on 6 March 2021. Its authors include Beatriz Cuesta-Briand, Ernesta Sofija, Shelley Burich and Neil Harris. 

Some of the highlights of the survey included: lifestyle factors being the most frequently cited cause of cancer (190 respondents) followed by unhealthy food consumption (76 respondents), tobacco smoking (57 respondents) and alcohol consumption (19 respondents).

The absence of self-care or carelessness was also mentioned (15) as well as new lifestyle (12) by the respondents.

The respondents also gave their views on what they thought cancer is with communicable disease (37) ranking the highest and within this category 18 of them pointed to sexual intercourse as the cause of cancer, followed by germs and viruses (10) and poor hygiene practices (5).

“Not washing hands after going to the toilet was given as an example of poor hygiene that might lead to cancer, as was, in the case of breast cancer, women not washing their breasts after sweating,” stated the study.

The study added that the respondents also attributed cancer to internal factors (20), and this included the belief that it is a result of a curse (6 respondents), shame or fear to see a doctor (6 respondents), abandoning God or religion (3 respondents) and stress (2 respondents).

The study further added: “With regards to beliefs about traditional healing (3 respondents), one respondent directly linked cancer to seeking the advice of traditional healers, and another respondent who came from a family of taulasea (traditional healers) believed that cancer is ‘worse when seeing a doctor’; another said that, because cancer is the result of a curse, people should have Samoan traditional massage instead of seeking Western medicine.”

In terms of environmental factors that the respondents claimed were behind the cause of cancer, the lack of prevention and education were emphasised by 10 respondents while others pointed to ‘natural causes’. Some also blamed exposure to substances such as pesticides and make-up and behaviour such as taking drugs, failing to breastfeed and ‘keeping your mobile phone in your bra’.

The authors, in the conclusion of the study, said “the notion of cancer as a communicable disease” hasn’t been fully explored by literature with a specific focus on cancer beliefs among Samoan populations and their findings were significant.

“This finding has significant implications for future cancer education campaigns. Given that Pacific island nations face a double burden of infection and lifestyle-related cancers, addressing misconceptions on causation while increasing awareness of the role of viral infections in the development of certain cancers (e.g. cervical cancer) is urgently needed.

“Overall, these results confirm the strong cultural context of health and beliefs about disease causation in Samoa. 

“The results support the need to address knowledge gaps and misperceptions around cancer in the context of Samoan cultural norms and practices, recognising the influence of family, chiefs and church leaders in faʻa Sāmoa and engaging with traditional healers.

“As Samoa faces the challenge of a growing cancer burden, cancer awareness, prevention and early detection initiatives should address knowledge gaps and persisting community misconceptions, while harnessing the health-promoting aspects of faʻa Sāmoa. 

“This will result in greater engagement in health promotion practices and screening initiatives and, ultimately, better health outcomes.”

One of the study’s authors, Shelley Burich, is the former Chief Executive Officer of the Samoa Cancer Society.

The S.C.S. posted the link to the study on its official Facebook page on Sunday and stressed that it was important to dispel beliefs that become a barrier to people going a check and getting the appropriate treatment.

“Sharing with you the findings of this survey which lends support to one of the most important work that we do at the Samoa Cancer Society and that is to continue #community #awareness and #education about the #signsandsymptoms of #cancer for an informed Samoa and to dispel beliefs that would hinder people's confidence in understanding and doing the right thing,” the S.C.S. said in its Facebook post. 

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