Contamination, suffering and womanhood: Lay explanations of breast cancer in Central Vietnam

Trang Thu Do, Andrea Whittaker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Breast cancer has become the most frequent cancer among women in Vietnam, claiming over 6000 lives a year. In this article we investigate how laypeople explain the causes of this pressing health issue based on an ethnographic study conducted in the Central region of Vietnam in 2019, including hospital observation, interviews with 33 breast cancer patients and focus groups with 21 laypeople. Our findings show that their knowledge of causation is mediated through historical social contexts of warfare, a rapacious market economy, poverty, and cultural configurations of gender roles. Contamination of the environment and food, use of chemicals, failure to follow postpartum practices, breast ailments, and worry are understood to be immediate determinants of breast cancer. These popular accounts are unlikely to recognize biomedical narratives of breast cancer risk that focus upon individual responsibility and lifestyle factors because they may not reflect the lived realities of women. We emphasise the implications for public awareness campaigns to meaningfully engage with the situated social and cultural specificities of breast cancer.

Original languageEnglish
Article number113360
Number of pages9
JournalSocial Science & Medicine
Publication statusPublished - 9 Sept 2020


  • Breast cancer
  • Cancer
  • Cancer aetiology
  • Health risk
  • Illness causation
  • Lay epidemiology
  • Vietnam

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