Cultural and language differences and socioeconomic status interact with and contribute to low health literacy, defined as the inability to understand or act on medical/therapeutic instructions. Health literacy is increasingly recognized as an important factor in patient compliance, cancer screening utilization, and chronic disease outcomes. Commendable efforts have been initiated by the American Medical Association and other organizations to address low health literacy among patients. Less work has been done, however, to place health literacy in the broader context of socioeconomic and cultural differences among patients and providers that hinder communication and compliance. This review examines cultural influences on health literacy, cancer screening and chronic disease outcomes. We argue that cultural beliefs around health and illness contribute to an individual's ability to understand and act on a health care provider's instructions. This paper proposes key aspects of the intersection between health literacy and culturally varying beliefs about health which merit further exploration.