White HL, Mulambia C, Sinkala M, Mwanahamuntu MH, Parham GP, Moneyham L, Grimley DM, Chamot E
Invasive cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women worldwide, with approximately 85% of the disease burden occurring in developing countries. To date, there have been few systematic efforts to document African women’s conceptualization of cervical cancer after participation in a visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA)-based “see and treat” cervical cancer prevention program. In this study, conducted between September, 2009-July, 2010, focus groups and in-depth interviews were conducted with 60 women who had recently undergone cervical cancer screening at a government-operated primary health care clinic in Lusaka, Zambia. Interviewers elicited participants’ causal representations of cervical cancer, associated physical signs and symptoms, perceived physical and psychological effects, and social norms regarding the disease. The lay model of illness causation portrayed by participants after recent exposure to program promotion messages departed in several ways from causal models described in other parts of the world. However, causal conceptualizations included both lay and biomedical elements, suggesting a possible shift from a purely traditional causal model to one that incorporates both traditional concepts and recently promoted biomedical concepts. Most, but not all, women still equated cervical cancer with death, and perceived it to be a highly stigmatized disease in Zambia because of its anatomic location, dire natural course, connections to socially-condemned behaviors, and association with HIV/AIDS. No substantive differences of disease conceptualization existed according to HIV serostatus, though HIV positive women acknowledged that their immune status makes them more aware of their health and more likely to seek medical attention. Further attention should be dedicated to the processes by which women incorporate new knowledge into their representations of cervical cancer.