The purpose of this study is to examine what living with cancer means for individuals, communities and families from a migrant background

  • Project dates: 2017
  • Grants and funding: Australian Research Council Linkage Project

Cancer is much more than just the leading burden of disease in Australia; it is affected by social and cultural realities, and experienced in hugely varied ways within and across communities, subtly reflecting our histories and cultural biographies. As Australia becomes super-diverse, through migration flows, cancer as an illness experience and a reason for informal caring is evolving, requiring new ways of understanding. People touched by cancer in Australia’s new and emerging migrant communities are bringing to the cancer experience important values, practices and vulnerabilities, as well as new forms of cultural health capital that are the result of their individual and specific experiences. Forced or ‘irregular’ migrants in particular face incredibly challenging personal histories, including a range of critical human rights deprivations. In addition to the life-changing cancer diagnosis itself, the challenges of migration, creating a new sense of home, navigating a ‘foreign’ health system and processing new and different understanding of health and illness, result in a highly challenging scenario for all stakeholders.

It is thus unsurprising that migrant communities have poorer treatment outcomes and often worse experiences of cancer care compared to the broader population. Oncology providers have struggled to accommodate individual cultural biographies without inadvertently ‘othering’ migrant populations as a whole. While valuable work has been done on cancer care for migrants, this has tended to focus on cultural groupings, culture-in-isolation, or quality of life measures. As a result, the agenda to integrate cultural diversity has lacked potency, largely due to limited understanding of how ‘cultural differences’ elude neat capture, and how cultural differences shape the person. We urgently require an evidence base to push the cancer care sector beyond ‘accommodating culture’ and toward an emphasis on integrating individual life histories and experiences to facilitate person-centred care.

This sociological project will treat culture as one facet of complex life histories (e.g. experiences of separation from kin, managing new service structures, divergent medical beliefs) through the accounts of migrants from different backgrounds. It will use a unique combination of visual and oral life history methodologies to examine the lived experiences of cancer with respect to culture, class, age, gender, sexuality, disability, and so forth. Specifically, we will focus on bridging migrants’ experiences both past and present, their hopes for the future, and help uncover their experience of illness, treatment and care from different perspectives – people with cancer, carers, healthcare professionals and community leaders/advocates. This will contribute, to the health and social care sectors, a theoretical model and empirical evidence base for incorporating cultural biographies into person-centred care, addressing patient needs and improving services.

Key People

Lead researcher

Professor Renata Kokanovic

Professor Renata Kokanovic

Professor of Sociology of Health and Illness, Vice Chancellor's Senior Research Fellow

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External Investigators

Research Team

Industry Partners

  • Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital
  • Liverpool Hospital
  • Multicultural Health Service

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Health, Society and Medicine

Through translational interdisciplinary research, the Health, Society & Medicine research program focuses on addressing key questions in relation to experiences of health, illness, biomedical practice, and informal care.

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