In-depth interviews were conducted with 67 healers across various ethnic and language groups in Guatemala exploring how its indigenous people define and treat cancer. The analysis found that, while key differences emerge between Maya and Western medicine perspectives, they also share many fundamental concepts.
“Maya healers understand cancer in remarkably similar ways to Western doctors,” said lead study author Mónica Berger-González, PhD, of the Institute for Environmental Decisions at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. “Recognizing this is the first step to bridging the gap between cultures and ultimately providing better, more effective services for indigenous populations.”
Nearly half of the population in Guatemala (approximately 5.4 million people) relies on Maya medicine. Traditional healers have practiced in Guatemala for more than 2,000 years, with the healing tradition passed down orally and through apprenticeship. According to the authors, this is one of the first studies to explore the subject of Maya healers and cancer across several ethno-linguistic groups, and limited data exist on survival outcomes.
Of the Maya healers interviewed, 46% were illiterate. Although only 36% were able to define the word cancer, the majority (85%) was familiar with the term and identified malignancy as a core characteristic of the disease, explaining the concept of metastasis clearly.
The analysis also revealed that Maya healers understand the origins of cancer in ways that align closely with Western medical concepts. When asked to identify the physical causes of cancer, 10 of 17 causes provided correlated directly with cancer risk factors as understood in Western medicine. Healers cited causes such as the consumption of harmful foods (46.3%), hereditary conditions (29.6%), and lifestyle factors such as smoking or working with toxic substances (29.6%).
One notable difference identified between the two perspectives is that Maya healers’ view of cancer is not limited to the physical body, but rather includes a complex imbalance of the emotions, mind and spirit. The Maya treatment of cancer is consequently holistic and seeks to restore that balance. This is achieved through a combination of methods — such as regulating diet, plant therapy, detoxifying baths — as well as social, psychological and spiritual methods, the latter of which the authors note is harder to grasp in Western medicine.
“If health care professionals do not understand indigenous peoples’ conception of cancer, these patients are far less likely to accept and adhere to treatment in the public health care system,” said Dr. Berger-González.
Many indigenous people in Guatemala do not have access to Western medicine services, cannot afford them, or prefer Maya medicine even when Western medical treatment is available. Yet Western medicine practitioners have little to no training in multicultural management or traditional indigenous medicine.
The authors offer three key recommendations to help address the challenges of providing care in multicultural settings:
– Adequate training of health care professionals on cultural and social perceptions of cancer,
— Increasing evidence-based research on traditional medicine, and
— Establishing national regulations on integrating traditional and Western medicine — following other countries like Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador, which have successfully incorporated these aspects of care.
The authors plan to continue their transdisciplinary research with the goal of providing biomedical evidence that advances different aspects of Maya medicine.