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The Cancer Stigma in Obituaries

By Amy Brown
27 Jan 2016

Many people were shocked earlier this month when both musician David Bowie and actor Alan Rickman, both 69, died of cancer. Neither obituary stated the type of cancer they died from, as the families chose to keep that information private. However, experts say not disclosing the type of cancer could be detrimental.

Experts are concerned that not releasing the specific type of cancer – whether the deceased was famous or not – reinforces the stigma against cancer. By reinforcing the stigma and not disclosing information, researchers and advocates are less able to educate about specific cancers and fundraise for programs aiming to cure certain cancers. Having celebrities open up about cancer also encourages people to go in for tests they may otherwise skip, like colonoscopies. Another example is the outpouring of support after Beau Biden died of brain cancer last year, which prompted President Obama to put Vice President Biden in charge of an effort to cure cancer. Ordinary families can also contribute to education by placing the specific type of cancer in obituaries, as it provides information for others on how long someone was able to live after diagnosis, and where they received treatment, potentially. Some people – especially in regard to famous people who have affected the lives of others they may have not met – cite a lack of closure when the type of cancer is withheld.

However, family members say that information should be kept private if desired. Many feel that their deceased family member may not have wanted the specific information public, especially if it “felt like too much information” or was associated with a specific behavior, like smoking for lung cancer and drinking for liver cancer. The deceased may have felt embarrassed by their cancer, and wanted to keep it quiet. They also claim that such details distract from the life of the person. Only about 15% of family members are resistant to releasing the information according to obituary writers at the Washington Post and New York Times, however, but the need for privacy is an explanation of many families who choose to not specify the specific cancer.

Is it more or less ethical to withhold the type of cancer? Does education outweigh family privacy? Does fame change what the ethical option is at all?

Amy graduated from DePauw University in 2017, and was a Hillman Intern and the Digital Media Assistant Managing Editor at the Prindle Institute for Ethics. At DePauw, she was an Honor Scholar and Political Science major with a Russian studies minor. She has spent time abroad in the Czech Republic and now works in Washington, D.C.
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