Lay perceptions of breast cancer in Western Kenya

Document Type



Obstetrics and Gynaecology (East Africa)


Aim: To explore lay perceptions of causes, severity, presenting symptoms and treatment of breast cancer.

Methods: In October-November 2012, we recruited men and women (18 years and older) from households and health facilities in three different parts of Western Kenya, chosen for variations in their documented burdens of breast cancer. A standardized and validated tool, the breast cancer awareness measure (BCAM), was administered in face-to-face interviews. Survey domains covered included socio-demographics, opinions about causes, symptoms, severity, and treatment of breast cancer. Descriptive analyses were done on quantitative data while open-ended answers were coded, and emerging themes were integrated into larger categories in a qualitative analysis. The open-ended questions had been added to the standard BCAM for the purposes of learning as much as the investigators could about underlying lay beliefs and perceptions.

Results: Most respondents were female, middle-aged (mean age 36.9 years), married, and poorly educated. Misconceptions and lack of knowledge about causes of breast cancer were reported. The following (in order of higher to lower prevalence) were cited as potential causes of the condition: Genetic factors or heredity (n = 193, 12.3%); types of food consumed (n = 187, 11.9%); witchcraft and curses (n = 108, 6.9%); some family planning methods (n = 56, 3.6%); and use of alcohol and tobacco (n = 46, 2.9%). When asked what they thought of breast cancer’s severity, the most popular response was “it is a killer disease” (n = 266, 19.7%) a lethal condition about which little or nothing can be done. While opinions about presenting symptoms and signs of breast cancer were able to be elicited, such as an increase in breast size and painful breasts, early-stage symptoms and signs were not widely recognized. Some respondents (14%) were ignorant of available treatment altogether while others felt breast cancer treatment is both dangerous and expensive. A minority reported alternative medicine as providing relief to patients.

Conclusion: The impoverished knowledge in these surveys suggests that lay education as well as better screening and treatment should be part of breast cancer control in Kenya.


This work was published before the author joined Aga Khan University.

Publication (Name of Journal)

World journal of clinical oncology


Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License