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What Maya Healers Can Teach Us About Cancer

New research shows how Maya healers perceive cancer beyond the physical body.

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Guatemala's Lake Atitlan and volcanoes

mikeblue/Thinkstock

Cancer is increasingly being researched as a personalized disease, where understanding our specific genetic makeup can lead to more precise prevention, screening and treatment. Yet the culture we come from is also important, according to work recently published in the Journal of Global Oncology.

The finding stemmed from research that looked at traditional Maya healers’ views of cancer. Maya healers have practiced in Guatemala for more than 2,000 years, passing down their knowledge through oral traditions and via apprenticeships. Today in this country of 5.4 million people, nearly half the population still relies on traditional Maya medicine, for many reasons. In some areas there is no access to Western medicine; Western medicine is more expensive; and many people simply prefer the Maya medical methods.

Researchers conducted interviews with 67 healers, across many ethnic and language groups across Guatemala. Though nearly half were illiterate, 85 percent were familiar with the word cancer and understood malignancy as the core characteristic of the disease. They also understand the origins of cancer in the same ways Western doctors do, citing risk factors such as eating harmful foods, heredity, and lifestyle factors such as smoking or working around a lot of toxic chemicals.

But a key difference is that the Maya healers also have the perspective that cancer is not limited to the physical body, but also includes an imbalance of the emotional self, the mind and the spirit. Maya treatment of cancer, therefore, is more holistic and seeks to restore that balance. Practitioners employ methods such as nutrition, plant therapy and detoxifying baths, as well as some spiritual and psychological techniques that are harder to translate to Western medical concepts.

“As the global incidence of cancer continues to grow, it’s essential that health care providers understand different cultural and social perspectives on cancer,” wrote Don Dizon, M.D., of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “This study reveals some important overlap between Maya and Western medicine, offering insights that can help healthcare providers more effectively communicate with patients of all backgrounds.”

The study had several takeaways. One, it suggested that if health care providers are treating patients in multicultural settings, they need training in how different cultures perceive cancer. Two, it recommended increasing evidence-based research on the efficacy of traditional medicine. Lastly, it called for establishing guidelines on how to integrate traditional and Western medicine.


Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


This entry is tagged with:
CancerCancer TreatmentTraditional MedicineStudies

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