Cancer fatalism: the state of the science

Cancer Nurs. 2003 Dec;26(6):454-65; quiz 466-7. doi: 10.1097/00002820-200312000-00005.


Cancer fatalism--the belief that death is inevitable when cancer is present--has been identified as a barrier to participation in cancer screening, detection, and treatment. Yet this literature has not been reviewed in a comprehensive and systematic manner. Therefore, this literature review addressed (1) philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of cancer fatalism; (2) relationships among demographic factors, cancer fatalism, and cancer screening; (3) the role of cancer fatalism for patients diagnosed with cancer; and (4) intervention strategies. Most of the reviewed studies were descriptive or correlational, did not have an explicit theoretical framework, had varied definitions of fatalism, and reported screening as "intent to screen" or as "past screening behaviors." Review of the studies suggests that cancer fatalism develops over time and is most frequently reported among medically underserved persons and those with limited knowledge of cancer. Cancer fatalism may be modified through culturally relevant interventions that incorporate spirituality. Emphasis must be placed on recognizing the role of cancer fatalism when planning health promotion activities. Future studies should focus on the consistent measurement of cancer fatalism and testing intervention strategies.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Culture*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mass Screening / psychology*
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / psychology*
  • Uterine Cervical Neoplasms / prevention & control