Roles Traditional Healers Play in Cancer Treatment in Malaysia: Implications for Health Promotion and Education

  • Published : 2013.06.30


Background: For a number of reasons from cultural compatibility, to accessibility, to cost, traditional healers are a major source of health care in developing countries. In Malaysia, it's been estimated that upwards of 80% of the population consult traditional healers even if simultaneously seeking treatment from the Western medical system. Partially as a result of the widespread practice of visiting traditional healers, cancer diagnosis and treatment in Malaysia is often delayed or interrupted resulting in late presentation, advanced stage diagnosis, and a higher mortality rate than in Western countries. However, there is very little research on the role of traditional healers in cancer treatment in Malaysia. Materials and Methods: This qualitative study was designed to identify the roles traditional healers play in cancer diagnosis and treatment, with an eye to alleviating the cancer burden through educational responses with four publics in mind-policy makers, Western medical personnel, traditional healers, and the general public. In-depth interviews were conducted with 14 Malay traditional healers, 13 cancer survivors who had seen both traditional healers and Western doctors, and 12 cancer medical specialists. Results: Analysis of the data from these 39 participants revealed four roles traditional healers play in cancer treatment-medicinal healer, emotional comforter, spiritual guide, and palliative caregiver. Conclusions: Three roles (emotional, spiritual, palliative) can be seen as complementary to the allopathic system. Emotional and spiritual roles may augment the effectiveness of biomedical treatment. Cancer awareness and education programs need to position traditional healers as complementary, rather than an alternative to Western medical treatment; Validating the roles Traditional Healers can play in cancer treatment in MY through health promotion and education will contribute to alleviating the nation's cancer burden.


  1. Heggenhougen HK (1980b). The utilization of traditional medicine-A Malaysian Example. Social Sciences and Medicine, 148, 39-44.
  2. Helman CG (2007). Culture, Health and Illness (5th ed.). London: Hodder Arnold. Hospice/palliative care societies in Malaysia. Retrieved from Hospice Malaysia website: (16 Mar 2011).
  3. Kayombo EJ, Uiso FC, Mbwambo ZH, et al (2007). Experience of initiating collaboration of traditional healers in managing HIV and AIDS in Tanzania. J Ethnobiol and Ethnomedicine, 3, 6-16.
  4. Lau BWK (1989). Why do patients go to traditional healers? J Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, 109, 92-5.
  5. Malik IA, Khan NA, Khan W (2000). Use of unconventional methods of therapy by cancer patients in Pakistan. Eur J Epidemiol, 16, 155-60.
  6. McMillen H (2004). The adapting healer: pioneering through shifting epidemiological and sociocultural landscapes. Social Sci & Med, 59, 889-902.
  7. Merriam SB (2009). Qualitative research: a guide to design and implementation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.
  8. Mills E, Sing S, Wilson K, et al (2006). The challenges of involving traditional healers in HIV/AIDS care. Int J STD & AIDS, 17, 360-3.
  9. Mills PK, Riodan, DG (2004). Cervical cancer among Hmong women in California, 1988 to 2000. Am J Prev Med, 27, 132-8.
  10. Mohamed IE, Williams KS, Tamburrino MB, Wyrobeck JM, Carter S (2005). Understanding locally advanced breast cancer: What influences a woman’s decision to delay treatment? Prev Med, 41, 399-405.
  11. Nelms LW, Gorski J (2006). The role of the African traditional healer in women's Health. J Transcultural Nur, 17, 184-9.
  12. Al-Naggar RA, Bobryshev YV, Abdulghani MAM, Rammohan S, Al-Jashamy K (2012). Knowledge and perceptions of cancer and cancer prevention among Malaysian traditional healers: a qualitative study. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev, 13, 3841-50.
  13. Anderson BO, Yip CH, Ramsey, SD, et al (2006). Breast cancer in limited-resource countries: health care systems and public policy. Breast J, 12, 54-69.
  14. Broom A, Torvey P (2007). Inter-professional conflict and strategic alliance between traditional healers and oncologist in Pakistan. Asian J Social Science, 35, 608-25.
  15. Corbin J, Strauss A (2007). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (3rd ed.), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  16. Daley BJ (2006). Aligning health promotion and adult education for healthier communities. In S.B. Merriam, B.C. Courtenay, & R. M. Cervero (eds.), Global Issues and Adult Education (pp. 231-242). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  17. Denzin NK, Lincoln YS (2003). Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  18. Deuraseh N (2009). Using the verses of the Holy Quran as Ruqyah (Incantation: The perception of Malay-Muslim Society in Kelantan and Terengganu on Ruqyah as an alternative way of healing in Malaysia. Eur J Social Sci, 9, 448-56.
  19. Erasmus PC (1992). More about complementary medicine: Traditional healing. Continuing Medical Education, 10, 105-6.
  20. Ernst E, Pittler MH, Wider B, Boddy K (2007). Complementary/alternative medicine for supportive cancer care: development of the evidence-base. Support Care Cancer, 15, 565-8.
  21. Gramsci A (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. (Q. Hoare and G.N. Smith, trans. and eds.), New York: International.
  22. Heggenhougen HK (1980a). Bomohs, doctors and sinsehs-Medical pluralism in Malaysia. Social Sci & Med, 148, 235-44.
  23. Omar ZA, Ali MZ, Tamin INS (Eds.) (2006). Malaysian cancer statistics - Data and figures for Peninsular Malaysia, 2006.
  24. National Cancer Registry, Ministry of Health, Malaysia. Pal SK, Mittal B (2004). Fight against cancer in countries with limited resources: The post-genomic era scenario. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev, 5, 328-33.
  25. Parsa P, Andiah M, Rahman A, Zulkefli M (2006). Barriers for breast cancer screening among Asian women: A mini literature review. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev, 7, 509-14.
  26. Patton MQ (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  27. Razali SM. (2009). Integrating Malay traditional healers into primary health care services in Malaysia: It is feasible? Int Med J, 16, 13-7.
  28. Razli SM, Najib MAM (2000). Help-seeking pathways among Malay psychiatric patients. Int J Social Psychiatry, 46, 281-9.
  29. Razali SM, Yassin AM (2008). Complementary treatment of psychotic and epileptic patients in Malaysia. Transcultural Psychiatry, 45, 455-69.
  30. Relying on bomoh for cancer treatment. (October 2, 2010). New Straits Times, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, p.11.
  31. Ross E (2008). Traditional healing in South Africa: ethical implications for social work. Social Work in Health Care, 46, 15-33.
  32. Shimobiraki C, Jimba M (2002). Traditional vs. Modern medicine: Which healthcare options do the rural Nepalese seek? Technology and Development, 15, 47-55.
  33. Taib NA, Akmal MN, Mohamaed I, Yip CH (2011). Improvement in survival of breast cancer patients-Trends in survival over two time periods in a single institution in an Asian Pacific country, Malaysia. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev, 12, 345-9.
  34. Taib, NA, Yip, CH, Low, WY (2011). Recognising symptoms of breast cancer as a reason for delayed presentation in Asian women - The psycho-socio-cultural model for breast symptom appraisal: Opportunities for intervention. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev, 12, 1601-8.
  35. Tovey P, Broom, AF, Chatwin J, Ahmad S, Hafeez M (2005a). Use of traditional, complementary and allopathic medicines in Pakistan by cancer patients. Rural and Remote Health, 5, 447-56.
  36. Tovey P, Broom A, Chatwin J, Hafeez M, Ahmad S (2005b). Patient assessment of effectiveness and satisfaction with traditional medicine, globalized complementary and alternative medicines, and allopathic medicines for cancer in Pakistan. Integrative Cancer Therapies, 4, 242-8.
  37. Tovey P, Chatwin J, Broom A (2007). Traditional, complementary and alternative medicine and cancer care: An international analysis of grassroots integration. London: Routledge.
  38. UNAIDS, (2000). Collaboration with traditional healers in HIV/AIDS prevention and care in sub-Saharan Africa: A literature review. Geneva, Switzerland: UNAIDS.
  39. Wong LP, Wong YL, Low WY, Khoo EM, Shuib R (2008). Cervical cancer screening attitudes and beliefs of Malaysian women who have never had a pap smear: a qualitative study. Int J Behavioral Med, 15, 289-92.
  40. World Health Organization (2002). Traditional medicine strategy 2002-2005. Retrieved from WHO website:
  41. World Health Organization (2005). Preventing chronic diseases: A vital investment. Geneva, Switzerland. Retrieved from WHO website:
  42. Yip CH (2008). Epidemiology of breast cancer in Malaysia. In Hashim, Z., Sharif, Z., & Muhamad, M. Breast cancer in Malaysia: Issues and educational implications. (1-18). Serd, MY: Institute for Social Science Studies, Universiti Putra Malaysia.
  43. Yip CH (2009). Breast cancer in Asia. Cancer Epidemiology, 471, 51-64.
  44. Yip CH, Cazap E, Anderson BO, et al (2011). Breast cancer management in middle resource countries (MRCs): Consensus statement from the Breast Health Global Initiative. Breast, 20, 12-9.
  45. Yip CH, Samiei M, Cazap E, et al (2012). Coordinating care and treatment for cancer patients. Asia Pac J Cancer Prev, 13, 23-36.

Cited by

  1. Comparison of Psychotropic Prescriptions between Oncology and Cardiology Inpatients: Result from a Pharmacy Database in a Teaching Hospital in Malaysia vol.15, pp.10, 2014,
  2. Perception of Patients with Cancer towards Support Management Services and Use of Complementary Alternative Medicine - a Single Institution Hospital-Based Study in Saudi Arabia vol.15, pp.6, 2014,
  3. Knowledge and Beliefs of Malaysian Adolescents Regarding Cancer vol.16, pp.3, 2015,
  4. Use of complementary and alternative medicines in haemodialysis patients: a cross-sectional study from Palestine vol.16, pp.1, 2016,
  5. Culturally competent patient–provider communication in the management of cancer: An integrative literature review vol.9, pp.1, 2016,
  6. Factors Associated with Delay in Presentation of Symptomatic Cancers among HIV Infected Persons in Plateau State, Nigeria vol.07, pp.03, 2017,
  7. When ‘chemo is failing’ … ‘the illness is indigenous’. Therapeutic pluralism and reclaiming agency: family cancer caregivers’ experiences in Nairobi vol.11, pp.2, 2017,
  8. Anxiety and Depression in Cancer Patients: The Association with Religiosity and Religious Coping vol.56, pp.2, 2017,
  9. Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use and Symptom Burden in Women Undergoing Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer in Malaysia vol.41, pp.3, 2018,
  10. Patient and oncologist perceptions regarding symptoms and impact on quality-of-life of oral mucositis in cancer treatment: results from the Awareness Drives Oral Mucositis PercepTion (ADOPT) study vol.26, pp.7, 2018,
  11. Crossing the death threshold: experiencing multi-disciplinary end-of-life integrative oncology training vol.26, pp.7, 2018,
  12. Prayer-for-health and complementary alternative medicine use among Malaysian breast cancer patients during chemotherapy vol.14, pp.1, 2014,