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The Disease That Shall Not Be Named

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Carlo Gervasi: Think about it, Tone. Sudden weight loss...
Paulie Walnuts: [shocked] AIDS?
Tony Soprano: Nobody's got AIDS! I don't want to hear that word in here again!


There are some illnesses that we don't like talking about. Today, we are much more open about it, but once, not too long ago really, the names of these illnesses were verboten. You did not mention them. Doctors might not tell the patient what they were suffering from. Media would avoid saying their names. You used a nickname or euphemism if you have to talk about them, avoiding the dreaded name. You just never brought them up. They tended to be illnesses that cannot be cured and/or are transmitted sexually. As medical science has advanced and public attitudes to sex have loosened, they have become more acceptable, but some, most often AIDS, are still treated as taboo. Another variant are diseases that involve some embarrassing biological function or body part, such as diarrhea on the list abovenote , or pretty much any other ailment involving the backside or groin.

Cancer is a special case. There was a time, back before anesthesia and asepsis, when most cancers were never diagnosed. Doctors could easily recognize breast, cervical, and vaginal cancers from an external examination, but without surgery, X-rays, or medical laboratories, they couldn't detect internal cancers. Because of this, cancer was seen as mainly a woman's disease, and one that could affect any woman: certainly nothing to be ashamed about in any event. By the early 20th century, however, X-rays and surgery had made it possible to diagnose almost any cancer. Unfortunately, it didn't allow them to do anything about most cancers since patients often didn't see their doctors until the condition was terminal. Cancer, therefore, became synonymous with "death sentence" and the word gained a sinister reputation. Even now, when half of all cancers can be cured, the word is considered much more malevolent than it would have been in the early 1800s, possibly due to the fact that, while half of all cancers can be cured, the treatment itself, usually involving surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and other painful procedures, can be pretty hellish in its own right. This is why modern readers of Anthony Trollope's novel Doctor Thorne from The Chronicles of Barsetshire are often shocked when Trollope steps away from the church politics for a moment to frankly describe a woman dying of breast cancer, described as such. In his time, it wouldn't have been shocking. An example of how unpalatable even the use of the word "cancer" in other contexts is the practice of published horoscopes substituting the name "Moon Child" for the astrolgical sign of Cancer.

It's also a way for an artist to hedge their bets in case they got something wrong, as they can't portray [X] Condition wrong if they never say it's [X] Condition.

Another aspect of the taboo is that many people consider it Tempting Fate to talk about diseases, in the same sense as Speak of the Devil and The Scottish Trope. And as the close associates of the asbestos miner who died of cancer also died of cancer after talking about the fact that he had cancer, and plague victims died after going to the same rat-infested market and talking to people about who had the plague, and everyone who gossiped about Phil having cholera as they drew water from the well next to the dump came down with cholera...cue centuries of the Association Fallacy.

In some languages, like Dutch, names of diseases make up most of the language's profanity. If someone tells you to "kanker op", it's because he really doesn't want to see you, not because he wants you to get cancer. Similarly, if a Polish person kicks their toe painfully, dropping a bag full of eggs and destroying their best Sunday outfit in the process, they are quite likely to shout out "Cholera!!!" in despair.

Contrast Incurable Cough of Death and Soap Opera Disease, where the illness consists of symptoms that are ill-defined and vague (and oddly convenient to the plot). In this trope, the work could identify the illness, but won't due to cultural or ethical restrictions.

Compare Disease by Any Other Name, which is a disease which isn't known to the characters, but is by the audience. Contrast The Topic of Cancer and Tragic AIDS Story for the respective awkwardness and tension that mentioning such diseases by name can cause. See also Secretly Dying (which this trope often entails), Never Say "Die", Victorian Novel Disease, Delicate and Sickly, Littlest Cancer Patient, The Scottish Trope, and Good Victims, Bad Victims. See also Diagnosed by the Audience, where the audience decides what a character has for themselves.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • An interesting variation occurs in the Rurouni Kenshin: Seishohen OVA, in which Kenshin and later Kaoru suffer from an unknown disease. It's likely either a specific unmentionable or one they just made up. In either case, what exactly it is never gets brought up, but seeing as it's set in late 1800s Japan this may be justified by the setting. Also, while Souji Okita collapsed during the Ikeda-ya raid, it was never mentioned why. Real-life Okita died in 1868 from tuberculosis, and while the symptoms did reveal themselves during the raid, in reality, he didn't collapse until the raid in question was over.
  • 13th squad captain Jushiro Ukitake from Bleach has a never-named illness that may have caused his hair to lose its color (his eyebrows are black, the rest is white), leads to him laying in bed sick a lot, and occasionally makes him cough up blood.
  • In an SBS of One Piece, Oda Eiichiro was asked if a disease he had mentioned in the series was real. He noted that, yes, it definitely is real, but the name and general idea was tweaked a bit to sound fictional. Apparently, in the manga business, some terms/diseases are frowned upon for being "too real".
  • Hyatt from Excel♡Saga suffers from some unknown disease that causes her to vomit blood and die on a regular basis. She always gets better, though.
  • The "Mars Rays disease" from Mobile Suit Gundam AGE, which is terminal and can strike anyone living on Mars, is basically cancer. In the show, it's supposedly caused by "rays" from Mars's magnetic field, but in Real Life a strong magnetic field shields a planet from being scoured by radiation, and one major difference between Earth and Mars is that the latter has no magnetic field. This is why in most other stories that involve Mars colonization, a major concern is preventing everyone from dying of radiation poisoning and cancer.
  • Inverted in Ill Boy, Ill Girl. The disease that has afflicted the eponymous duo does not have a name. It's a plot point, though, as the boy has dibs on naming the disease after him... provided that he dies from it first.
  • Naruto:
    • Itachi dies of a disease that causes fits of coughing and Blood from the Mouth, that he was receiving treatment for. Most fans think it was tuberculosis or something along those lines, but the disease itself is never actually named.
    • Kimimaro dies of a very similar disease, which may or may not be the same thing.
  • In Fushigi Yuugi: Genbu Kaiden, Mrs. Okuda is suffering from tuberculosis at the beginning of the story, though it is usually referred to as "consumption" instead of by its proper name. She and Takiko's governess wish to keep the illness a secret because the social stigma might jeopardize 17-year-old Takiko's ability to get married. (Takiko's classmates seem to know that the Okuda family moved to Morioka from Tokyo because of an illness, though they don't know all the details, and gossip constantly about it.)
  • In Cardcaptor Sakura, Nadeshiko Kinomoto (the mother of The Protagonist) is mentioned to have died at the age of 27 from an unspecified illness.

    Comic Books 
  • Chick Tracts: The tract "Wounded Children" contains an odd variant: A Depraved Homosexual speaks of his lover dying of "cancer", which a footnote tells us means "AIDS". This is actually Accidentally-Correct Writing: It wasn't unusual in the '80s and '90s for people with AIDS to say that they had cancer to avoid the stigma. In many cases, it's not a total lie, since Kaposi's Sarcoma is an opportunistic skin cancer (the infamous black lesions) which AIDS victims often die from. In fact, in the early '80s, before it was identified and named, AIDS was often colloquially called "gay cancer" (within gay communities).
  • There's an autobiography (in graphic novel form) called Stitches about this guy's crapsack childhood. At one point his parents don't tell him that he has and is about to undergo surgery for throat cancer. He finds out by accident a while later, and when he asks why he wasn't told, they tell him it's because he "didn't need to know."
  • One of the children terrorized by Kamara the Monkey-King in Saga of the Swamp Thing has some very frightening ideas about "cancer", as a relative had subjected the kid to dire warnings about it without actually explaining what it was.

    Fan Works 
  • Played with in Through Thick and Thin with Ryuuko's illness. Invoked, as Satsuki, in her narration, prefers not to refer to it by name and neither does everyone, however, from all implications, the former is being treated for cancer.
  • In the Frozen (2013) fanfic Darkness Burning, after an Interrupted Suicide attempt Elsa is described as "ill" instead of specifying that she suffers from depression. This causes people outside her family to speculate exactly what the illness is. Elsa herself refers to her depression as being a "darkness". It's also worth noting that the term "depression" being used to refer to Major Depression didn't become commonplace until the 1860s, and Frozen takes place in the 1840s, so it's possible that the characters don't have a word to describe Elsa's illness.
  • In the RWBY fic Hazy Shade of Winter, Ruby calls out her parents for skirting around the name of her illness. Ruby is fine with discussing lung cancer by name but her family isn't.
  • In Bolt out of the Blue, a Final Fantasy VIII fanfic by RaceUlfson, two characters contract pepperpox. It is shown to cause high fever, headache, sore throat, no appetite, aches, and little red spots on the skin, as well as being very damaging to unborn fetuses. This makes it a slightly more serious version of real-life virus rubella or German measles. There is even a vaccine for it in the story, just like in real life, which is very effective but which some people choose not to get, just like in real life.

    Films — Animation 
  • Coco: Miguel mentions tactfully that Coco "has trouble remembering things". Her fading memory then becomes a major plot point, but it is never specifically stated whether it's Alzheimer's or just ordinary dementia.
  • In My Neighbor Totoro, Mrs. Kusakabi is hospitalized, though what for is never stated outright. It is thought to be tuberculosis because the film is based on Hayao Miyazaki's childhood, and his mother had it.
  • Onward: Ian and Barley's dad died from a terminal illness when the former wasn't even born yet and the latter was a toddler, but it's never stated what exactly it was.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Cries and Whispers: Agnes' terminal disease that gets her killed halfway through the film. The disease's name is never stated outright but is strongly implied to be uterine cancer because of her pained writhing and how the doctor examines her.
  • An amazing example in 1939 Tear Jerker Dark Victory, which uses words like "glioma", "growth", and "malignant", and kills off the ill girl at the end, but never says "cancer" or "brain cancer".
  • Even pregnancy can fall to this. In one of the Benji movies, Tiffany (the dog) was referred to as being "ill" when they meant "about to have puppies".
  • In Moulin Rouge!, Satine has consumption (tuberculosis), but this is kept from her until near the end of the movie when she dies from it onstage.
  • At the end of Forrest Gump, Jenny tells Forrest that she's "sick". It's never said what she had, only that it's a virus and was terminal. Given the disapproving tone surrounding Jenny's Bohemian lifestyle outside of Forrest's orbit, and that Jenny could be seen as experiencing the "bad side" of decades versus Forrest's hopeful one, it was often assumed the 1980s setting meant it would be AIDS. An especially sad case as Jenny was still incredibly unsure of herself when she left Forrest the second time before Forrest Jr. was born, and a relapse occurred during their life apart. Also leads to some complaints that verge on Reality Is Unrealistic, since the fact that neither Forrest nor their son seems to be infected can happen if an infected person is careful, and straight men are at low (though not zero) risk of infection through sex. The worst part is that Jenny exhibits no symptoms of her disease while dying other than feeling very, very tired... making her appear to be the physically weakest human being in history. Word of God indicates that it was Hepatitis C.
  • In MirrorMask, it's never said outright what is afflicting Helena's mother, but the implication is pretty clear that it's a brain tumor (it's also stated explicitly in the companion book).
  • Secrets & Lies: The cause of Monica's infertility is never mentioned, although some have speculated that it might have been endometriosis.
  • In And the Band Played On, about the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, this is a plot point. When Richard Gere's character, a No Celebrities Were Harmed version of Michael Bennett, dies, his obituary reads that he died after a "long illness", leading Dr. Don Francis, the protagonist, to object that "This could be the first deadly epidemic in history of which nobody officially died."
  • Trainspotting: Tommy has "the virus" but never knew he'd gone "full-blown". He officially died of toxoplasmosis, an opportunistic infection that attacks immuno-compromised people. Renton had to get tested for something that he may have also contracted, but fortunately for him, his test came up negative. Clearly, his disease was AIDS but it's never used in direct reference to him. HIV is brought up during Renton's Going Cold Turkey nightmare, but at no point in the film is it stated directly that Tommy has, or that Renton doesn't have, AIDS.
    • Though the phrase "AIDS Junkie" spray-painted on Tommy's door might have been a clue.
  • In the '90s Australian film The Sum Of Us, Jack Thompson's character is struck down by a stroke. Contemplating this in the hospital, he recalls that when his son came out as gay, he thought he might someday have to watch him die in hospital of "that terrible disease" (meaning AIDS).
  • In Tear Jerker One Way Passage, poor Joan is dying of...something. Something that leaves her looking beautiful, and perfectly healthy, except for the occasional fainting spell. A throwaway reference to a sanitarium vaguely implies TB, but she never coughs.
  • In the opening scene of State of the Union, where Kay meets her dying father, he talks about something "eatin' my guts away", and he says a little bit later that he can't stand the pain anymore. The word "cancer" is not mentioned.
  • My Cousin Rachel (1952): Ambrose's father died of a tumor in the brain, and Rachel and Guido attribute both Ambrose's death and the terrifying letters he sent to Phillip to a tumor in his brain that affected his mental state. The word "cancer" is not used.
  • Played with in Brighton Beach Memoirs when the main character points out that any kind of illness is whispered. At one point he tells a younger sibling to tell his mother he has diarrhea and whispers the last word.
  • Discussed in the 2018 documentary Dangerous Son. It's mentioned that mental illness is a difficult issue to discuss in America and that many people are very hush-hush about it, but that in the future it could develop out of this trope similar to how many forms of cancer are now widely openly discussed.
  • In the 1909 film The Country Doctor, the doctor's daughter and a neighbor girl both fall ill. It's not mentioned what they are ill with. The neighbor girl writhes around in discomfort in bed, while the doctor's daughter (who also has dark undereyes) simply lies on her side the entire film. The neighbor girl gets better but the doctor's daughter dies.
  • To quote a review of Dr Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940) "the characters are allowed to talk about syphilis, but only as an abstract concept. That is, they are allowed to say things like, "Syphilis is a disease"; but never at any point does anyone say to a patient, "You have syphilis." Instead, vague references to "this scourge" and "this dread disease" are made, with a strict distance kept at all times between the phenomenon of syphilis and those suffering from it".

  • There is a 19th-century French story in which (mentioned in passing) an Englishwoman goes and deliberately gets infected so as to sleep with Napoleon and give him the disease. (It doesn't work.) The disease part is very quickly glossed over, but it's pretty obvious what it is they're talking about.
  • The Brothers Lionheart: Skorpan died of tuberculosis, but the disease is never named in the book.
  • In Robert Cormier's "The Bumblebee Flies Anyway", both Cassie and Barney refer to their illnesses (which aren't identified but seem from their description to be cancer) as The Thing.
  • In A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim's disease comes across this way to modern readers. Modern literary experts believe it was most likely intended to be either a kidney problem or rickets, but it's never explicitly identified in the narrative; all we get is Scrooge asking the Ghost of Christmas Present what's wrong with the boy, and receiving the answer of "Much, I'm afraid."
  • A Day of Fallen Night:
    • Prioress Saghul dies after a sudden quick decline, shocking the other sisters because there was no warning beforehand. The sister who cared for her explains that there was a malignant growth in her stomach and that such things can grow for years before their symptoms herald a swift death — in other words, stomach cancer.
    • Though not a disease, the description of the paler patches on Saghul's brown skin sounds like vitiglio.
    • Glorian frets about the possibility of her family's penchant for "grievoushead" and the particular variety that can strike after giving birth. The description of her mother's periods in this mood (as well as the previous book's depiction of her descendant's sufferings) matches clinical depression and post-partum depression.
  • The following lines about being gassed from Wilfred Owen's WWI poem Dulce et decorum est were edited by many when first published, often just by removing the word cancer and leaving the poem with a ruined meter.
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
  • In The Vietnam War era naval novel The Edge of Honor, all senior officers and the Chief of the Boat aboard the USS John Bell Hood conspire to hide their captain's bowel cancer diagnosis from the naval establishment, as the captain wanted to command a ship during wartime one last time before he goes. Unfortunately, this cover-up leads to them letting drug use run rampant throughout the crew, eventually endangering the ship.
  • In the second Flashman book, Royal Flash, a character is described as suffering from a "social disease". Flashman immediately responds, "You mean he's got the clap?"
  • O-Lan in Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth became sick later in the book. Her illness was never named, but she described it as "a fire in my vitals," which sounds like cancer.
  • Subverted in L. M. Montgomery's novel Magic For Marigold, in a chapter called simply "It". "It" is a mysterious disease that the adults around Marigold suspect she has caught, but which no one will tell her what it actually is, driving the girl distracted with all sorts of horrible imaginings of what "It" might be. Until her aunt tells her that "It" is simply head lice.
  • Digory's mother in The Magician's Nephew, until she is cured by a magic fruit. In Real Life, author C.S. Lewis' mother died of cancer when he was ten years old.
  • The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is set in Botswana, and the recent AIDS epidemic is occasionally mentioned, but referred to only as "the terrible disease" or similar.
  • Mildred in Of Human Bondage is strongly implied to be a prostitute and dies, almost certainly of syphilis.
  • The Pearl Diver, by Jeff Talarigo, is a very thoughtful and in-depth discussion about how leprosy (and later AIDS) was this in Japan for ages. You didn't talk about it. If your family member caught leprosy, they got sent off to a different island and were stricken from the record as if they'd died.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, there is a lot of characters who have vaguely described medical conditions. This is a medieval world where the local doctors just do not have the knowledge to identify diseases as we do, so all we have is symptoms. Nevertheless, the disease from which Lord Hoster Tully is dying is heavily hinted to be cancer and King Viserys I's symptoms before death match those of untreated diabetes.
  • No one wants to talk about AIDS in Tell the Wolves I'm Home, although justified due to it being set in The '80s.
  • At one point in The Tragedy of Y (by Ellery Queen), the York family doctor lets amateur detective Drury Lane read the family medical history, specifically all the parts that talk about the positive Wasserman tests. The book never uses the word "syphilis", even when Lane gets access to those medical files by proving to the doctor that he already knew the York children had been born with the disease.
  • In the Literature/Trixie Belden series, Honey's governess, Miss Trask, had an ill sister. Miss Trask looked after her in the hospital when she was chaperoning the B.W.G.s and their friends in New York in Mystery of the Blinking Eye. They never mentioned what the sister had, though.
  • In The Turn of the Screw it's never specified what the previous governess died of, but given the context it's likely death by childbirth, suicide after becoming pregnant, or a botched abortion.
  • Discussed in Two Weeks with the Queen. Colin reflects on the fact that he's never heard anyone other than a doctor refer to his brother's condition as "cancer". When he meets Ted, he first warms to him when Ted openly refers to the disease by name, rather than shying away from it.
  • Under Heaven has "the sugar sickness", otherwise known as diabetes. An Li suffers from it, and one of his political opponents had a plan to use it against him.
  • When Women Were Dragons: Alex's mother is dying of cancer, but nobody names the disease aloud. In a more fantasy sense, nobody wants to discuss dragoning, which is treated as something between a disease and a sin.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In a Monty Python's Flying Circus animation sequence, we have an enchanted prince who gets a spot on his face, ignores it and dies of cancer, but the word "gangrene" was very obviously dubbed over "cancer" in a very different (as in, male as opposed to female) voice. It can be heard as intended in And Now for Something Completely Different.
  • Good Times was the first time STD (then called VD) was mentioned in a (US) fiction TV show, but they never really said what it was or how it was spread, just that JJ's ex had VD and he should get tested, along with Anvilicious speeches about VD (given the time frame, they almost certainly meant gonorrhea).
    • During the final season, Willona wants to protect little Penny from the facts of life, suggesting to her adopted daughter that her 12-year-old pregnant friend had simply contracted the "Stomach Mumps." Terms related to teen pregnancy are freely exchanged between Willona and Florida, as the two bitterly argue about whether to tell Penny the truth (Willona is forced to when Penny is nearly sexually assaulted in the hallway).
  • Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman:
    • In the series’ first episode, prostitute Myra comes to see Dr. Mike about a "female problem". Later, Dr. Mike tells Hank, owner of the local brothel, that Myra needs to be "chaste" for several weeks. When he complains about the loss of revenue, she warns him that he'll lose a lot more if she has to treat his customers as well.
    • In a later episode, Hank asks why Dr. Mike has been oblivious to the fact that her sister Marjorie is ill—"That husband of hers left her with more than anyone suspects". Mike realizes what the problem is and gently tells her sister, "It's not your fault, he gave it to you", then offers to give her an injection of silver nitrate in order to clear up the infection. Given the treatment mentioned, it's obvious that Marjorie's unfaithful husband has given her gonorrhea.
  • The Hogan Family:
    • The first use of the word "condom" and what it's for on a (US) fiction TV show was in a Very Special Episode during the series' second season (episode titled "Bad Timing," when Valerie told David to use a condom if he had sex with his girlfriend. The episode aired with a content warning.
    • Unlike many other sitcoms, The Hogan Family also unashamedly addressed AIDS in one of the last episodes of the series, where David's best buddy Rich contracts AIDS. The episode shared Rich's last days and ends with his death.
  • On Happy Days when Chachi asked for Mrs. Cunningham's blessing for he and Joanie to get married he said he "had to" marry her, so Mrs. C thought he and Joanie were "in trouble" — that he had knocked her up. But no, he "had to" because he loved her so much.
  • Non-disease example: on Sex and the City, Charlotte mentions that her Jewish boyfriend has relatives who died in the Holocaust, a word she says at least 20 decibels lower than the rest of the sentence. She may have also done the same about Samantha's cancer.
  • After Scott dumps Buffy Faith sees him with another girl. She gets a brainwave, goes up to him and claims the sexually transmitted diseases she got from him were clearing up, getting some measure of revenge for what he did to Buffy.
  • Towards the end of GLOW's second season, Bash finds out his friend Florian has died. The disease is never specified but since Florian was known to go gay bars, and the hospital tells him his diagnosis is "technically" pneumonia and that many funeral homes won't take the body, the implication is obvious.
  • A season 4 episode of The Golden Girls has Sophia volunteering at the hospital. One of her favorite people to visit with is a young boy who is a patient. She encourages him by telling him, "One day, they'll find a cure." Considering that it's 1988, it could have been AIDS, or it could have been cancer, with a comment about his blood getting messed up by a bad transfusion heavily implies the former (the story took place right at the same time as the Ryan White story.)
  • There was a sketch in The Kids in the Hall where Scott Thompson played a celebrity who denied rumors that he was gay. The narrator claims that he kept denying the rumors up until the day he died of AIDS. The camera shows his body at the funeral and his corpse says out of the side of his mouth, "It was cancer."
  • Only Fools and Horses: In "Sickness and Wealth," Del is worried that he might be suffering from a certain disease, and subsequent dialogue makes it obvious that he's talking about AIDS. The disease was still pretty taboo in 1989, hence why it isn't mentioned by name, but the episode shows quite a surprising degree of AIDS awareness, most notably the fact that it isn't—as was widely considered to be the case at the time—something that only gay men contract.
  • Babylon 5 included an in-universe example with the disease which ultimately wiped out the Markab. Sufferers would not discuss it or seek treatment because most Markab believed the disease only struck the immoral and impure. At one point, Dr. Franklin lampshaded the fact that this resembled human behavior surrounding many plagues, including AIDS and the Black Plague.
  • In the Revolution episode “Captain Trips”, Rachel is listing off diseases that the patients have other than the manufactured one they're all suffering from, and in a real sign of what's accepted in modern society versus what's still not, she says in a normal voice that two of them have Bipolar and Epilepsy, but whispers when she says that the third woman is an Alcoholic.
  • The trope is invoked in-universe to correct period effect in The Crown (2016) when King George's illness is described as "structural alterations" in his lungs. Winston Churchill, who is only the prime minister of the country, has to give this medical report to a doctor friend for translation — cancer.
  • Community does its best to imply Abed is autistic, and known to be by the others characters, without ever actually using the word. For instance, another man "like Abed" contrasts themselves with "neurotypical" people. Another scene is clearly about Abed mocking his friends for expecting the Hollywood Autism in procedural TV shows.

  • Prince used "A big disease with a little name" to describe HIV/AIDS in Sign o' The Times.
  • Amateur Transplants hilariously parodies the practice in their Dorsal Horn Concerto song.
  • TLC's song "Waterfalls" features this. It's a series of morality plays, and the second one is about a man who sleeps around, and it gives us this gem:
    His health is fading and he doesn't know why
    Three lettersnote  took him to his final resting place
  • The American folk song "St. James Infirmary", and its British progenitor, "The Unfortunate Rake", never mention the illness that dooms the narrator and his sweetheart, but details in the lyrics provide a clue: mentions of "white salts" or "mercury pills" mean mercuric chloride, a 19th-century remedy for syphilis. The real St. James Infirmary was a medieval leper hospital, and the song probably dates back that far (after 1536 the building was generally known as "St. James's Palace"). This may be an example of one Disease That Shall Not Be Named substituting for an earlier one that had faded from memory.note 
  • R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" has characters mention a disease called "The Package". Averted in later chapters, people ask if "The Package" is AIDS/HIV.

    Mythology and Religion 
  • In The Bible, a woman seeks healing from Jesus for an affliction that caused bleeding, that she had been suffering from for 12 years. (Incidentally, Jesus was on his way to heal a 12-year-old girl who was suffering at death's door from another unnamed illness. The young girl and the older woman may or may not be related in some way.) We don't know what the affliction of the bleeding woman was, only that she had suffered from it for a long time, and that bleeding made her ritually impure (and thus a social outcast). (It may have been endometriosis, or something like ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, all of which are now treatable.) She reaches out and touches Jesus' clothing, and He stops walking and asks who touched Him. When she reveals what she did, He commends her faith, and she is healed from her affliction. As for the young girl He was on His way to see, she died before He got there, but He brings her Back from the Dead and cures her sickness.
    • In another incident, a young boy is healed from Convulsive Seizures, which were chalked up to Demonic Possession, but are now thought to be Epilepsy or some other seizure disorder. Somewhat justified in that neuroscience wasn't a thing yet, so many mental disorders and neurological disorders were thought by people of that time to be caused by demons, rather than flaws in a person's nervous system or brain chemistry.

    Puppet Shows 

  • In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the doctors never tell Big Daddy or his wife that he has cancer, telling them instead that he has a spastic colon.
  • Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts was incredibly controversial in its time merely for referring to congenital syphilis, even though the disease was never named outright.
    • A Doll's House is similarly quiet on Dr. Rank's disease (he has spinal tuberculosis which is implied to be caused by congenital syphilis), and in Hedda Gabler her pregnancy is never made explicit.
  • Angels in America uses the aforementioned Roy Cohn inversion. Prior occasionally plays the trope straight by saying that he's "sick" and "diseased". While he is able to admit to his boyfriend what he has, he does fuss around before spitting it out.
  • In Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, the mother mentioned that someone had tuberculosis, but said it in a quiet, hushed tone.
    • Earlier, Eugene tells the audience that his uncle had died of...(whisper) cancer. He goes on to explain that all the adults in his life whisper the word, as if God will overhear and shout, "I HEARD THAT! YOU SAID THE DREAD DISEASE! THEREFORE, I SMITE YOU DOWN WITH IT!!!" This, of course, takes place in the late 1930s, where if you said "cancer", you said "death".
  • In Passion by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, nobody, not even the doctor, explains what Fosca's disease is.
  • In Dead End, Martin's ex-girlfriend Francey reveals she is "sick" when he tries to kiss her on the mouth. It is only hinted at that she was forced into prostitution and dying from syphilis. The play does describe her as "an obvious whore of the lowest class"; for obvious reasons, this doesn't come across so clearly in the movie.
  • In La Traviata, Violetta's tuberculosis is only mentioned by name once, in the last act, while in La Bohème, Mimí's TB is never mentioned by name at all. In both cases, the audience is supposed to recognize the disease just from the symptoms, and possibly from familiarity with the sources, La dame aux camélias and Scenes de la vie de bohéme.

    Video Games 
  • In Persona 4, it's fairly clear that Hisano's husband suffered from dementia, largely through her story harshly averting Easy Amnesia.
  • Final Fantasy XIV: The White Mage questline for the Stormblood expansion centers around a mother living with her child in the woods just past the border between Gridania and Ala Mhigo, who finds herself keeling over in pain several times from a heart condition. Nothing is discussed about what that condition actually is or what caused it — only that it's going to eventually kill her, and even white magic can do nothing to fix it.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Arthur episode "Grandpa Dave's Memory Album", it is shown that Arthur's grandfather is suffering from memory loss, but no disease (such as Alzheimer's, dementia or brain cancer) is mentioned. However, series creator Marc Brown stated in an interview that the episode was about was Alzheimer's, and that they consulted experts on the subject.

    Real Life 
  • When Terry Pratchett gave the 2010 Dimbleby Lecture, he mentioned that Richard Dimbleby (after whom the lectures are named) broke a taboo by admitting he was dying of cancer (almost invoking this trope by name). He went on to say that Alzheimer's and Dementia is now in the same category.
  • Cancer is sometimes referred to as The Big C.
  • When doctors diagnose a person with scabies, it is named with the technical name of scabiosis. Rather obvious in English, but not so in other languages (Spanish "sarna" vs. "escabiosis").
    • Doctors, in general, like to tell the patients their diagnoses as indecipherable Techno Babble if these diagnoses are terrifying enough to endanger the patients' mental health as well. For example, schizophrenia may be referred to as "SCH" (works particularly well in languages with non-Latin scripts, so the patient cannot make the connection). They may also simply use the ICD-10 codes.
    • Other examples include Antidepressant discontinuation syndrome, calling it withdrawal is technically correct but patients would get upset at the implications they were an addict. Also Leprosy, now called Hansen's disease and treatable, due to the literal Biblical implications of the name.
  • Isaac Asimov contracted HIV when he was transfused with infected blood during heart surgery, but the stigma associated with the disease caused him to hide the condition throughout the rest of his life. When he died from AIDS-related complications, his cause of death was publicly given as kidney failure, and it wasn't until ten years later that his family revealed the truth in a biography. According to his wife Janet, Asimov wanted to go public during his lifetime but was persuaded not to by his doctors for the sake of his family and friends, as it was quite likely they would suffer from anti-AIDS prejudice that was prevalent at the time.
  • Many newspaper obituaries will read that a person died "after a long illness," which usually means one of these.
  • Speaking of newspapers, many horoscope columns now use the term "Moon Children" for those born from late June to late July, instead of Cancer. Aside from invoking this trope, it is even more ludicrous when you realize the disease was named after the crab (Latin name: cancer) because untreated breast cancer can look like a crab.
  • As mentioned above, head lice. Although it's not a sign of dirtiness or being low class, the sheer amount of work involved in eradicating the live lice from one's head and home (usually 2-7 days, and most of your day will be taken up with it), and removing the dead nits from the hair (at least two weeks), makes parents cringe when they hear somebody in their child's class has it. And most schools will not reveal who patient zero is, but simply send home the lice letter to everybody in the school, to avoid ostracizing the child.
  • Among certain ethnic divisions of Judaism, merely saying the Hebrew word for "cancer" (סרטן, pronounced "Sartan") is considered inviting it into the body. It is, instead, only referred to as "The Disease" (המחלה), with the Hebrew equivalent of "The".
  • Medical knowledge about the human urinary and reproductive systems, and especially about the digestive system's organs of defecation, is still being held back somewhat because of the stigma associated with such topics.
  • During the COVID-19 Pandemic:
    • YouTube demonetized videos for simply alluding to COVID-19, so many content creators skirt around it, either by not referring to it at all, or calling it The Pandemic. Some, like iilluminaughtii, had fun with it and referred to it as 'the beer'.
    • Similarly, Facebook is known to put "misinformation" warnings under posts that simply mention the virus or disease. Or vaccines.
    • Many obituaries of people who died from it deliberately left out the actual cause of death, often due to the families wanting to avoid stigma.

Exceptions and Aversions

    Anime and Manga 
  • In Black Jack's backstory, Black Jack broke this taboo to straightforwardly tell a fellow medical student she had ovarian cancer. Overall, he tends to be very blunt about the patient's chances.

    Fan Works 
  • In Kill la Kill AU, Room 002108, we have this with Ryuuko's illness, then again, she was mentioned be hospitalized for tests, in which case, this may be justified in that what she has is unknown (to both the reader and anyone that isn't hospital staff). However, it is subverted when Nonon (called Nonie) tries to avoid saying the taboo word which is, true to the trope, cancer and that, when she said it, it was treated as though she had said a swear or uttering it could be Tempting Fate, but mentions that may be what Ryuuko has and as to why she was hospitalized "for tests". Earlier, this was also averted when it was stated Satsuki was severely ill with tuberculosis.
  • Averted in Sunshine with Satsuki's illness being leukemia, from which she dies.
  • Also averted with Endless Numbered Days and Satsuki being ill with lung cancer, which later on progresses to terminal.
  • Olivia Benson in this fic is mentioned to be diagnosed with cancer, from which she passes away three months later.
  • In Odds and Probabilities, a prequel to Through Thick and Thin (see above), Ryuuko's illness was diagnosed to be Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

    Films — Animation 
  • In Tokyo Godfathers, Hana's foster mother hears that Hana lost her boyfriend and asks (albeit under her breath) if he died of AIDS. Hana clarifies that he slipped on the soap in the shower.
  • In The Wind Rises, it's specifically stated that protagonist Jiro's wife Naoko has TB. He marries her knowing that she's in the final stages and she dies at the end.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In The Shootist, J.B. Books is explicitly said to have cancer. This may have something to do with the fact that the actor, John Wayne, had previously struggled with lung cancer and done several PSAs about the disease. He would be diagnosed with stomach cancer shortly after the movie's release; this would be his last film. Played straight as well, to a degree — it is never explicitly stated that Books has prostate cancer.
  • From Team America: World Police, "Everyone has AIDS!" (Which is a parody of RENT, discussed in the Theatre folder below.)
  • Oddly inverted, along with just about everything else, in The Room (2003). Lisa's mother says off-handedly that "I got the results of the test back. I definitely have breast cancer." This sets it up as a possible plot point. However, it is never mentioned again, and Lisa herself doesn't seem particularly affected by the news.
  • Averted in Forrest Gump for Mama Gump, if not for Jenny. Forrest says outright that "she had got the cancer, and died on a Tuesday."

  • A female character in the Anthony Trollope novel Doctor Thorne has been diagnosed with breast cancer. The condition is treated matter-of-factly, as it would have been in Trollope's time in Real Life. However, the idea that cancer was not shameful was so shocking to early 20th century readers that some believed Trollope instead meant to show the patient as a pathetic malingerer who claimed to have cancer so she could get the doctor to feel her breasts.
  • Rebecca was revealed to be dying of a tumor in her ovaries, which meant that she couldn't have children.
  • Deliberately averted by Norman Spinrad in "Carcinoma Angels". The original publication in Dangerous Visions was introduced with "This is a very funny story about cancer", and the writer's endnote deliberately kept saying "cancer" in the course of railing against this trope.
  • Played with in-universe in the John Putnam Thatcher novel Brewing Up a Storm. One of the suspects says he has an alibi but refuses to tell the cops what it is. He went out of town to get an HIV test, after learning a woman he'd dated had turned up positive. At the end of the novel, another character points out that the woman in question had been blabbing the news all over town for months to get sympathy.
  • Subverted in the short story "Roman Fever" by Edith Wharton. Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade reminisce about their youth when high-class girls like them were discouraged from going out after dark in Rome, as it would cause them to catch "Roman Fever," a debilitating illness that would leave them bed-ridden for months. Neither specifically say what it is, but the narrative hints that it might be malaria. It's really a euphemism to hide pregnancies. When a young girl goes out with her beau after dark and gets pregnant, the family uses the socially acceptable excuse, "Oh, she caught Roman fever" in order to hide her from society until the baby is born.
  • In Rubyfruit Jungle Molly's adopted mother Carrie bluntly points out that her husband Carl contracted syphilis while sleeping around behind her back. It's implied this may be why they ended up adopting Molly if it left one or both of them infertile.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Spoofed when Tommy of Rescue Me confesses to a fellow firefighter he thinks he caught the "big C" from a woman. He's quickly corrected that chlamydia is the "little c".
  • Call the Midwife: Defied. When Chummy's mother is in her final illness, she mentions that people often refuse to mention its name. She more or less says that's for people with no backbone, says she has cancer, and says, "The beast is named."

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Funky Winkerbean has had several plots and events based around characters dying from cancer and never held back about what it was.

    Puppet Shows 
  • Refreshingly averted in the South African Sesame Street, which features Kami, an HIV positive Muppet.

  • Averted in RENT, where characters that have AIDS are pretty frank about it. In the film version, however, Roger and Mimi recognize each other's affliction through the medication without mentioning the name of the disease; it's still averted in the case of Angel and Collins, who speak about it frankly and by name.
  • Eugene Brieux's problem play Damaged Goods, though now forgotten, caused quite a stir in its time by referring to syphilis by name.

    Video Games 
  • Subverted in AdventureQuest. Alternate Ryuusei Cartwright's ambiguous disease is revealed to be terminal cancer and that he had been Secretly Dying all along since he and Gaiden had begun travelling between realities in search of his analogue.
  • In Red Dead Redemption II, the disease Arthur Morgan contracts (tuberculosis) is openly discussed.

    Western Animation 
  • Averted in South Park when Scott tells Terrence and Phillip that he hopes they both get cancer with special emphasis on "Can-saa!"
    • AIDS especially is often joked about. With the episode "Jared Has Aides", it was noted that only South Park could do an episode that consists almost entirely of an AIDS pun and end up getting in trouble for something else.
    • And then there's the episode where Cartman got AIDS:
      Cartman: We're not just sure, we're HIV positive!
  • The 1990 Peanuts special Why, Charlie Brown, Why? is about Linus befriending and helping a girl with leukemia. This made Peanuts the first animated series to ever directly talk about cancer.
  • As mentioned above Arthur played this trope straight once, but they've also averted it when Mrs. MacGrady was diagnosed with cancer.
  • Subverted in an episode of American Dad!:
    Neighbor: Well, my wife died. The Big C.
    Francine: Cancer?
    Neighbor: No, the big C from the Costco sign. Fell right on her.
  • Bob's Burgers — Bob tells Tina to keep quiet about an insurance scam, pointing out that Linda (his wife) can't keep a secret — cut to the two of them entering a cocktail party and Linda cheerfully shouting "Hi, sorry we're late, Bob had diarrhea!"

    Real Life 
  • In the 1960s, John Wayne went public with the fact that he'd had lung cancer — and through surgery had "licked the Big C". He remained in remission for several years before developing stomach cancer; he died in 1979.
  • Betty Ford is a twofer here. First, she went public with her diagnosis of breast cancer. This is credited with directly saving the life of Happy Rockefeller, wife of Nelson Rockefeller, who had (out of fear and shame) been avoiding an examination and was later diagnosed with breast cancer herself, from which she recovered. Later she went public with her alcoholism and addiction to painkillers, helping erase the stigma from addiction.
  • Jeremy Brett went public with his diagnosis of bipolar disorder in the 1980s, after a nervous collapse and hospitalization. He spent the rest of his life encouraging others to speak up about their condition and seek help. Here he is, candidly and calmly discussing his condition (which was his last public statement).
  • When Sir Terry Pratchett gave the Richard Dimbleby Lecture in 2010 (or rather, Tony Robinson gave it on his behalf), he said that Dimbleby, who died in 1965, was one of the first public figures in the UK to talk about having cancer, and he wanted to do the same for Alzheimer's.