In 1984, questionnaires were sent to members of the International Psycho-Oncology Society concerning the practice in their country with regard to revealing the diagnosis of cancer to patients, their opinion about the effect of their policy, and their impression of local trends and attitudes toward cancer. Data from 90 respondents from 20 countries revealed that use of the word "cancer" was often avoided in discussions with the patient. Words commonly substituted for cancer were those that implied a "swelling" (e.g., tumor, growth, lump), and "inflammation," or a pathophysiologic change (blood disease, precancerous, unclean tissue). Oncologists estimated that a low percentage (less than 40%) of their colleagues revealed the word cancer in Africa, France, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Panama, Portugal, and Spain. Oncologists from Austria, Denmark Finland, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, estimated the percentage to be high (greater than 80%). However, in all countries, the majority of physicians tell the family the diagnosis. The majority (90%) reported a trend toward increased telling of the diagnosis, due to greater patient information and expectations, and increased physician openess in using the word cancer. Most (68%) felt that the overall effect of revealing the diagnosis was positive. While emotional distress was transiently greater when patients were told, there were positive effects concerning coping, compliance, tolerance of treatment, planning for future, communication with physicians and others, and improved prognosis. The transient negative effects were depression, anxiety, and anger. It is important to recognize that efforts to find the "correct" position about revealing or concealing cancer diagnosis must recognize that the language between doctor and patient is constrained by cultural norms. Communication is likely to be far less dependent upon the specific words used then upon the meaning that is conveyed by the doctor.