Cancer Epistemics In Two Medical Systems

Cancer Epistemics In Two Medical Systems


Cultural diversity in clinical encounters is common, yet mental constructions regarding cancer that influence expected treatment are poorly studied for indigenous people. We explored Maya healers’ conceptions, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer to remedy this problem.

In-depth structured interviews with 67 traditional Maya healers in Guatemala across Kaqchikel, Kiche’, Mam, Mopan, and Q’eqchi’ ethnolinguistic groups were conducted by using a transdisciplinary format. Analysis of qualitative data in categorized matrixes allowed for statistical examination of tendencies and the results were complemented by validation workshops with Maya representatives.

Maya classification of diseases has broad categories of malignant diseases including cancer. Specific Maya terms might equate to particular cancer types, which would open new avenues for research. Notions of malignancy and metastasis were expressed by healers as core characteristics of cancer, a disease believed to be both material and spiritual. Resolution of and/or treatment for cancer is based on restoring physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual equilibrium of the patient and extending that equilibrium to his larger social circle.

Maya conceptions of cancer determine how traditional diagnostic tools are used and dictate treatment options that include the patient’s social-spiritual support system. Official health care providers’ understanding of these principles can improve implementation of culturally appropriate protocols that increase indigenous patients’ compliance and reduce rates of treatment abandonment.


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