Cancer and stigma – A reality?

breast cancer

What are the most stigmatized illnesses around the world? Umm…TB, HIV, Mental health issues. But have you come across people who are stigmatized because they have cancer? Do you think it exists? Well, it does.

Many of us are now aware that the nation is going through an epidemiological transition, which means that there is a change in the pattern of life expectancy, fertility, mortality, and cause of death in the growing population. Also, the world is experiencing a major shift of mortality due to communicable diseases towards a future where deaths due to non-communicable diseases would rule. Cancer, a non-communicable, perilous disease is identified as the second leading cause of death worldwide. It is estimated that around 9.6 million lives have been lost to cancer by the year 2018.

Social stigma and negative outlook by people come as accompaniments to cancer. Even though a lot many researchers show interest in analyzing the stigmatization of cancer patients, very few articles have examined it in the population. Former smokers having lung cancer comparatively feel more stigmatized due to the discernment that their illness is self-brought and they are the ones to blame for it.  Even though 90 percent of lung cancer cases are attributed to smoking, the person stigmatized doesn’t need to have the same cause for him/her to deal with the outcome. (Yılmaz, Medine, et al. 2019).

Cancer stigma not only affects the patients but also affects the public health efforts to reduce the burden of the disease. Exploratory studies show that the fear of being stigmatized discourages people from engaging in early prevention or detection as it results in discovering that you belong to a stigmatized group.

Cancer treatment and the side effects associated with it like alopecia, anemic appearance, mastectomy, colostomy, changes in skin color, and surgical scars, play an important role in patients’ social interactions by causing them to feel excluded.

The pandemic has added more misery to the suffering already. For people with comorbidities and those who require regular follow-ups and intensive care, COVID-19 had completely brought a halt in their lives. The situation for those with cancer was no different. Existing stigma towards cancer with an add-on of COVID-19 stigmatization has affected many lives. Delayed diagnosis, deprioritization of illnesses other than COVID and reduced options for patients who might have participated in some trials have jeopardized longer-term therapy development for patients. (Richards, Mike, et al. 2020)

Health education in the form of awareness along with IEC (Information, Education, Communication) tools have been identified as effective interventions in improving a patient’s or a common man’s attitude towards stigma. It is important to consider a society’s social, cultural, and economic structure to manage the existing stigma and to get over it in a developing country like India.

Bio: I am Rini Abraham. I’m a biotechnologist and presently I am pursuing my Masters in Public Health from Prasanna School of Public Health, Manipal University.


  1. Richards, M., Anderson, M., Carter, P., Benjamin, Ebert, L., & Mossialos, E. (2020). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer care. Nature Cancer, (1), 565-567.
  2. Yılmaz, M., Dissiz, G., Usluoğlu, A. K., Iriz, S., Demir, F., & Alacacioglu, A. (2019). Cancer-Related Stigma and Depression in Cancer Patients in A Middle-Income Country. Asia-Pacific journal of oncology nursing7(1), 95–102.



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