Handle with Care: Rethinking the Rights versus Culture Dichotomy in Cancer Disclosure in India

Photo Credit: Cecilia Van Hollen


Medical practitioners, bioethicists, psychologists, and anthropologists have debated whether it is ethical to disclose or withhold information from patients about cancer diagnoses. This debate is framed as pitting universal individual human rights against cultural pluralism. The rights‐based argument asserts that people have a right to information about their own health to make the best decisions about their treatment. The cultural variation argument suggests that in some cultural contexts there is a perception that information about one’s cancer diagnosis may cause more harm than good due to the psychological trauma this may cause. Based on ethnographic research with cancer patients in India, I argue that both sides of this debate overemphasize the importance of the content of the information that may be disclosed or withheld and underestimate the central ways in which the act of disclosing or withholding information is evaluated as a symbol of care of paramount concern to patients.