A growing body of work examines geographical setting as a source of health disparity, hypothesizing individual as well as larger, environmental sources of risk. However, mechanisms by which this influence operates, especially in rural settings, are not well understood. This study investigates the problem of colorectal cancer in a rural US community through the lens of geographical setting. Statewide maps of colorectal cancer burdens show a place-based disparity in colorectal cancer in the region surrounding a small, diverse Iowa community. Within a research partnership framework, we use these maps to engage community residents in discussions of high colorectal cancer rates. We ask how a rural community experiencing higher than expected rates of colorectal cancer late-stage diagnosis and mortality perceives and explains their increased risk, interpreting available epidemiological evidence based on their lived experience. We use concept mapping to organize these perceptions and situate our findings in the context of previous work. Our findings reveal a complex understanding of risk that should be taken into account in crafting effective public health interventions and messages. Our work informs the growing literature on how context influences individual experiences of health problems, with specific relevance for rural populations.
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