, Volume 14, Issue 4, pp 496–511 | Cite as

Cancer and secrecy in contemporary India

  • Dwaipayan BanerjeeEmail author
Original Article


In examining the secrecy around cancer in India, I develop recent anthropological work on how practices of medical non-disclosure grow out of contextually rooted notions of care. I extend the insights of this work in rejecting the framing of non-disclosure as a sign of cultural lack. But while much of this recent literature on biomedical non-disclosure is framed as a critique of bioethics, I am concerned here with describing the complexity of the lived experience in between disclosure and non-disclosure. Paying attention to this processual nature of non-disclosure reveals how it does not operate as a binary choice between concealing and revealing, and consequently, knowing or not knowing. Instead, I argue that weaving between disclosure and non-disclosure allowed my interlocutors to inhabit the space of the ‘as-if’—of living in a subjunctive tense. Living in the subjunctive made possible brief respites from the real, even as such respite often turned out to be temporary, and the as-if never really escaped the grasp of the actual. Finally, I suggest finally that what one tells, to whom, and when reveal how the burden of cancer is distributed across social networks, vitally shaping possibilities and trajectories for cancer treatment and care.


Cancer India Secrecy Concealment Non-disclosure Ethics 



My thanks to Sarah Pinto, Michael Fischer, Carlo Caduff, Harris Solomon, Cecilia Van Hollen, Molly McMullin, and three anonymous reviewers for their invaluable readings of prior drafts. Their suggestions went a long way in reshaping the argument of this piece. That said, I am responsible for any residual shortcomings.


Funding for this study was provided by Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (Grant No. 1123850) and by Wenner-Gren Foundation (US) (8363).


  1. Black, S.P. 2015. The morality of performance: HIV disclosure in speech and song in South Africa. Ethos 43 (3): 247–266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Boellstroff, T. 2009. Nuri’s testimony: HIV/AIDS in Indonesia and bare knowledge. American Ethnologist 36 (2): 351–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Brada, B. 2013. How to do things to children with words: Language, ritual, and apocalypse in pediatric HIV treatment in Botswana. American Ethnologist 40 (3): 437–451.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Broom, A., and A. Doron. 2012. The rise of cancer in urban India: Cultural understandings, structural inequalities and the emergence of the clinic. Health 16 (3): 250–266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Das, V. 2015. Affliction: Health, disease, poverty, First ed. New York: Fordham University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Davis, M., and L. Manderson. 2014. Disclosure in health and illness. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. del Vecchio Good, M.-J., et al. 1990. American oncology and the discourse on hope. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 14 (1): 59–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Ecks, S. 2008. Global pharmaceutical markets and corporate citizenship: The case of Novartis’ anti-cancer drug Glivec. BioSocieties 3 (2): 165–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. George, M.S., and H. Lambert. 2015. ‘I am doing fine only because I have not told anyone’: The necessity of concealment in the lives of people living with HIV in India. Culture, Health & Sexuality 17 (8): 933–946.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Goffman, E. 1974. Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New York: J. Aronson.Google Scholar
  11. Good, B.J., et al. 1994. In the subjunctive mode: Epilepsy narratives in Turkey. Social Science and Medicine 38 (6): 835–842.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Goss, P.E., et al. 2014. Challenges to effective cancer control in China, India, and Russia. The lancet Oncology 15 (5): 489–538.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gupta, A., et al. 2015. Multiple stakeholder perspectives on cancer stigma in North India. Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention 16 (14): 6141–6147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Gupta, H. 2004. A journey from cancer to ‘CanSupport’. Indian Journal of Palliative Care 10 (1): 32–38.Google Scholar
  15. Hollen, C.C. 2018. Handle with care: Rethinking the rights versus culture dichotomy in cancer disclosure in India. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 32 (1): 59–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Lind, S.E., et al. 1989. Telling the diagnosis of cancer. Journal of Clinical Oncology 7 (5): 583–589.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Livingston, J. 2012. Improvising medicine: An African oncology ward in an emerging cancer epidemic. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Nyblade, L., et al. 2017. A qualitative exploration of cervical and breast cancer stigma in Karnataka, India. BMC Womens Health 17 (1): 58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Pinto, S. 2008. Where there is no midwife: Birth and loss in rural India. New York: Berghahn Books.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Saria, V. 2015. To be some other name: The naming games that Hijras Play. South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal. Scholar
  21. Seligman, A., et al. 2008. Ritual and its consequences: An essay on the limits of sincerity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Singh, H.D. 2017. Fertility control: Reproductive desires, Kin Work, and Women’s status in contemporary India. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 31 (1): 23–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Van Hollen, C. 2005. Nationalism, transnationalism, and the politics of “traditional” Indian medicine for HIV/AIDS. In Asian medicine and globalization, ed. J.S. Alter, 88–106. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
  24. Wood, K., and H. Lambert. 2008. Coded talk, scripted omissions. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 22 (3): 213–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Limited 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyCambridgeUSA

Personalised recommendations