In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cancer

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews/Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Ethnography of Cancer
  • Cancer Risk
  • Patient and Survivor Experience
  • Patient/Survivor Memoirs and Narratives
  • Cancer Disparities
  • Racial Disparities in Cancer Outcomes, Screening, and Treatment
  • Studies of Oncological Research and Practice
  • Cultural, Social, Moral, and Political Significances of Cancer

Anthropology Cancer
Martha Lincoln
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0294


Cancer describes a group of chronic diseases characterized by uncontrolled cell division that is caused by chromosomal mutations in normal cells. When these genetically abnormal cells proliferate, they may ultimately cause tumors or other pathological changes that are characterized as malignant. Cancers can occur in all tissue types and at all points in the life stage. They may be caused by exposures to carcinogens such as ionizing radiation, by viral and other infections, by the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, by occupational exposures to carcinogenic substances, and by exposure to environmental contaminants such as outdoor air pollution or naturally occurring environmental substances like radon gas. Some cancers are also genetically caused. The prevention and treatment of cancer have long represented important objectives in medicine and public health, with significant advances charted in the understanding of cancer’s biology and pathogenesis over recent decades. The primary modern means of medically treating cancer include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy; in recent decades, immunotherapy has become another approved treatment modality, inspiring hope for continued progress in cancer therapies. Preventing cancer at the population level can be accomplished by interventions at all scales, from individual behaviors (tobacco cessation; limitation or cessation of alcohol consumption) to the implementation of policies that reduce population exposure to environmental carcinogens. An increasingly globally prevalent, frequently costly, potentially disabling illness that individuals may live with for years after diagnosis—as patients in active treatment or “survivors” who have completed treatment (or identifying as “survivors” in either case)—cancer is layered with cultural meanings. The often apparently random quality of an individual diagnosis of cancer can prompt attempts at explanation; laypeople (and others) may attribute cancer to fate or chance, to spiritual origins, to unwise or faulty individual conduct, and/or to the actions of powerful entities like states or corporations. Increasingly, anthropologists and other social scientists recognize cancer not only as a medical diagnosis, but as a profoundly social phenomenon whose experience is often imbricated with cultural and moral significance. By studying the illness experiences of patients and survivors, examining the cultural scripts surrounding the experience of cancer, and investigating how cancer is produced and enacted in diverse settings, social scientists have contributed importantly to understandings of this group of highly prevalent and often medically serious diseases. Yet the anthropological literature on cancer remains unbalanced, having historically overrepresented the experience of female reproductive cancers in North America and Europe and dedicating more limited research attention to other types of cancer and the experience of cancer in other world regions.

General Overviews/Reference Works

Epidemiological data on the incidence and prevalence of cancer globally, regionally, and at the country level provide important background to anthropological accounts of cancer, as do medically informed accounts of the biology of cancer. The American Society of Clinical Oncology is a leading source for publications detailing innovation and education in oncological research and practice, particularly in the United States. An account of the increasing epidemiological burden of cancer across world regions can be found in Thun, et al. 2017. Previously conceptualized as a health concern chiefly afflicting populations in higher-income “Western” countries, cancer is now understood to be a disproportionately increasing source of lost health and life in lower-income settings as well as in wealthy industrialized nations, as Mattiuzzi and Lippi 2019 shows. Preventing cancer incidence represents a high priority in global public health, given that curative approaches will not, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, provide adequate resources to respond to the increasing burden of disease, as Thun, et al. 2017 notes. Globally, research on cancer prevention and treatment constitutes a high priority in medicine and public health. An authoritative source for studies of cancer with global scope is the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). National organizations including the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and American Cancer Society (ACS) are leaders in funding cancer research. The NCI publishes comprehensive datasets on cancer epidemiology in the United States. Siegel, et al. 2022 also provides an overview of trends in the epidemiology of cancer in the United States, including commentary on enduring and emerging disparities in the burden of cancer among diverse American subpopulations.

  • American Cancer Society (ACS).

    A national charitable organization “dedicated to eliminating cancer as a major health problem.” Founded in 1913, the ACS is a prominent advocacy, fundraising, and lobbying organization, providing resources, services, and information to cancer patients. Via extramural grants, ACS contributes a limited percentage of its budget to independent research in cancer prevention and treatment and also funds its own researchers in population science and in surveillance & health equity science.

  • American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

    The “world’s leading professional organization for physicians and oncology professionals caring for people with cancer.” ASCO’s tens of thousands of members include American and international medical professionals in all specializations of oncology. Among other activities, ASCO publishes a series of peer-reviewed oncological research journals, is an accredited provider of continuing medical education, and convenes an influential annual conference.

  • Centers for Disease Control’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control.

    The CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control maintains publicly accessible statistical databases on cancer in the United States. It also conducts and supports research, with an emphasis on cancer prevention, cancer screening, the economics of cancer control programs, and wellness after a cancer diagnosis. The Division is tasked with multiple initiatives on the prevention and control of individual cancers, as well as with the National Comprehensive Cancer Control Program.

  • International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

    Established in 1965, IARC originally served as a stand-alone agency of the World Health Organization. Its present-day mission is “to coordinate international studies on the causes of human cancer, the mechanisms of carcinogenesis and strategies for cancer prevention, with a particular focus on promoting research in regions of the world where it is lacking.” IARC’s flagship initiatives include IARC Monographs and the Global Cancer Observatory.

  • Mattiuzzi, C., and G. Lippi. 2019. Current cancer epidemiology. Journal of Epidemiology and Global Health 9.4: 217–222.

    DOI: 10.2991/jegh.k.191008.001

    An analysis of global epidemiological statistics on the global incidence and prevalence of cancer, on cancer mortality, and on survival expectancy. Draws on official data from the World Health Organization and the American Cancer Society. The authors establish the contribution of cancer to global loss of Disability-Adjusted Life Years, suggest the respective incidence rates of different cancers globally, and rank cancers according to their respective rates of mortality.

  • National Cancer Institute (NCI).

    The US federal government’s “principal agency for cancer research and training,” NCI is also the leader of the National Cancer Program. As such, it is the world’s largest funder of research on cancer. NCI provides an “Annual Report to the State of the Nation on the Status of Cancer” and supervises the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program to collect population-based epidemiological data on cancer incidence and survival.

  • Siegel, R. L., K. D. Miller, H. E. Fuchs, and A. Jemal. 2022. Cancer statistics, 2022. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians 72.1.

    DOI: 10.3322/caac.21708

    An annually published article. Summarizes “estimated numbers of new cancer cases and deaths” in 2022 in the United States (nationally and at the level of individual states) and describes trends in cancer mortality. Data are drawn from the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Program of Cancer Registries (NPCR), among other official national sources.

  • Thun, M., M. S. Linet, J. R. Cerhan, C. A. Haiman, and D. Schottenfeld. 2017. Cancer epidemiology and prevention. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190238667.001.0001

    Updated every ten years, this encyclopedic reference on the causes and prevention of cancer supplies discussions of the biological and genetic dimensions of cancer, trends in the epidemiology of cancer in the United States, and the contribution of environmental and other risk factors to cancer incidence. Chapters also discuss the pathophysiology of cancers by tissue type and strategies for the prevention and control of cancer.

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