The dedication of October to breast cancer awareness has helped highlight the social dimension of this illness.  Pink October, as it is popularly known, includes philanthropic initiatives aimed at raising awareness and funds on this matter.Of course, there are many other types of cancer, and indeed, one can and should keep this in mind during such campaigns. Yet it is clear that breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women in Malta, affecting around one out of every eight, and that early detection can help save many lives.

Maltese society therefore should be grateful to voluntary, private and governmental agencies working together in this and similar campaigns.

Illness such as cancer is very often framed in medical terms. Patients are very much dependent on the expertise and assistance of medics and health services, with the hope of being cured or guaranteeing as much longevity as possible.

Important as the medical dimension is – and I would be the first to say that scientific knowledge should not be undermined by superstitious skepticism – one should also note the vital social dimension of illnesses such as cancer.

For example, from a macro-perspective, it is important that policymakers are aware of the demographics of illness. This could include dimensions such as gender, age, class, and ethnicity as well as regional and educational factors.

On an individual level cancer might equally represent a journey of hardship and of hope

Policymaking should be subject to scholarly and public engagement. This would help ensure that the impact of services is properly assessed, and that policies are constantly updated in relation to social needs.

Yet, the social dimension of illness such as cancer can also be analysed from a micro-perspective. On an individual level, for example, cancer might equally represent a journey of hardship and of hope.  One’s character, choices, social background and social encounters can play important roles in this regard.

I recently co-authored a sociological study with Charon Tedesco, which was published in the Malta Medical Journal.

In this qualitative study, it was clear that cancer patients emphasise the importance of family support.  This is hardly surprising, especially when one considers that Malta, as a small-island State, has a relatively high degree of family proximity and social solidarity.  Participants in the study expressed their need to open up about their illness with family members, adding that their experiences brought family members closer together.

What was particularly striking in our findings was that cancer patients do not simply receive support from family members, but also provide it themselves to their relatives. The latter may take place, for example, when a cancer patient has a major caring role in the family set-up. Such two-way support can help strengthen social bonds within families of cancer patients.

Sociologists refer to this as reciprocity, adding that this is characterised by trust and solidarity.

It is however important to note that such reciprocity may not always be in place and that the same cancer patients may be reluctant to share their experiences with non-family members.

Reciprocity could also be lacking in the case of family breakdown, or when a patient has no close family members in the first place.

The latter may also include migrants who are physically distant from their relatives and loved ones.

Such social situations should be given the importance they deserve by policymakers.  In the case of families affected by such experiences, health authorities may increase investment in counselling and other forms of psycho-social support.

This may equip family members to be in a better situation to deal with their respective situations.

Health authorities may also opt to provide a variety of services to cancer patients who do not have close family bonds. This would help ensure accessible support to such persons, irrespective of social background.

Public partnerships with voluntary and private organisations may help personalise and improve the quality of service, but the State should ensure universal access.   Let us not forget that social exclusion, stigma, fear and inequality may be social hurdles in the experiences of cancer sufferers.

Hence the need for health services with a strong social dimension.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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