Ambiguous bodies, uncertain diseases: knowledge of cervical cancer in Papua New Guinea

Ethn Health. 2018 Aug;23(6):659-681. doi: 10.1080/13557858.2017.1283393. Epub 2017 Feb 3.


Objectives: Within their local realities, people experience and interpret disease in diverse ways that do not necessarily correlate or converge with Western biomedical interventions. In the high cervical cancer burden setting of Papua New Guinea, understanding how people experience and interpret cervical cancer is necessary for effective intervention. Drawing on work by Street on the production of unstable biomedical knowledge, we explored how ambiguity and uncertainty, coupled with cultural taboos and linguistic limitations, affect what and how people 'know' about women's reproductive organs and their associated disease.

Design: A qualitative research approach was used to explore and understand how people in PNG articulate matters of health and disease as they relate to cervical cancer and HPV infection. Specifically, how unstable biomedical knowledge is produced and sustained. We employed a mixed-methods approach in collecting data from 208 (147 women) participants between 2011 and 2012 across 3 provinces in PNG.

Results: We found that knowledge and awareness about cervical cancer were poor. Five thematic areas emerged in our analysis, which included the gendered knowledge of women's reproductive health, the burden of cervical cancer in the community and the role (or limitation) of language. We further identified four ways in which ambiguity and uncertainty operate on both sociocultural and biological levels, and in the intersection between to produce unstable biomedical knowledge. These included poor knowledge of where the cervix is located and the uncertainty or unreliability of (lay) diagnoses of disease.

Conclusion: Local understandings of cervical cancer reflected the limitations of Tok Pisin as a lingua franca as well as the wider uncertain biomedical environment where diagnoses are assembled and shared. There is a clear need to improve understanding of the female reproductive organs in order that people, women in particular, can be better informed about cervical cancer and ultimately better receptive to intervention strategies.

Keywords: Cervical cancer; Human Papilloma Virus; Papua New Guinea; knowledge; uncertainty.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Culture
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Papillomavirus Infections / prevention & control
  • Papua New Guinea / epidemiology
  • Qualitative Research
  • Uncertainty*
  • Uterine Cervical Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Uterine Cervical Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Uterine Cervical Neoplasms / etiology
  • Women's Health*
  • Young Adult