The Farewell explores the ethics of lying about a cancer diagnosis


In some cultures, it it widespread to cover the reality about terminal illness diagnoses

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If you have been identified with terminal cancer, would you like to know about it, or to persevering with dwelling in blissful ignorance as in the event you have been completely wholesome? This query is at the coronary heart of the movie The Farewell, written and directed by Lulu Wang.

In the movie, a Chinese household decides to not inform their grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), that she has stage-four lung cancer. The movie’s title offers away its premise: underneath the pretence of a cousin’s wedding ceremony, the household stage a long-overdue reunion in China to present everybody a likelihood to say goodbye.

The Farewell, billed as being “based on a true lie”, originates from Wang’s life. Her grandmother was identified with lung cancer in 2013 and given three months to stay. Like the movie’s protagonist, the Chinese-American granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina), Wang was troubled by her household’s choice to withhold the diagnosis from her Nai Nai.


The prevailing narrative of “battling cancer” in Western society has its personal points, with its discourse of private triumph that values particular person accountability and dedication. But the different – to lie outright – may appear inconceivable, significantly to these accustomed to the norms of Western tradition. It is, nonetheless, a widespread apply in China, rooted in the perception that telling a particular person about their diagnosis could make their situation deteriorate faster.

“Chinese people have a saying: when people get cancer, they die. But it’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear,” says Billi’s mom (Diana Lin).

Heartfelt movie

The plot line of The Farewell is acquainted to me. Like Billi’s Nai Nai, my aunt was identified with metatastic lung cancer. Nobody in the household instructed her – nor did the medical doctors when she later underwent surgical procedure to take away a tumour. The final time I noticed her was in north-eastern China a few years in the past. Her once-plump determine had shrunk to a wiry body. She was in her early 70s, in good spirits, however a far cry from the feisty matriarch who used to dominate conversations.

The Farewell is a heartfelt movie, punctuated by moments of surprising – and unexpectedly uplifting – humour. In a darkly comical scene in a printing store, Nai Nai’s youthful sister calls for that the outcomes of a medical report be doctored to edit out references to cancerous nodules and changed with the nebulous time period “benign shadows”.

For the most half, medical doctors in China adjust to the needs of members of the family. A 2018 survey of Chinese medical doctors discovered that 98 per cent would inform kinfolk about a cancer diagnosis first, and of these, 82 per cent wouldn’t inform the affected person if the household requested the physician to not. Of 180 medical doctors surveyed, almost half stated that they’d equally need to withhold a diagnosis from their very own relative.

It wasn’t so way back that medical professionals in Western nations had comparable attitudes: in a 1961 research in Chicago, 90 per cent of medical doctors stated they wouldn’t inform the affected person of a cancer diagnosis – many even reported that they intentionally modified the diagnosis to keep away from mentioning cancer.

While disclosure is now mandated in lots of nations, ensuing from a shift in the direction of private autonomy, Chinese medical doctors are legally obligated to attempt to keep away from any adversarial results that will consequence from informing a affected person or their household about a diagnosis. The reality hurts – maybe an excessive amount of, is the rationale.

Different moralities

In the movie, Billi has a dialog with a UK-educated physician in entrance of Nai Nai, who doesn’t perceive English. “Isn’t it wrong to lie?” asks Billi. “If it’s for good, it’s not really a lie,” the physician replies. “I mean, it’s still a lie,” says Billi. “It’s a good lie,” says the physician.

Billi struggles to reconcile her household’s dishonesty with a private sense of guilt. This battle generates the movie’s narrative rigidity, and boils all the way down to differing views of morality. There’s a dichotomy between Western individualism and Eastern collectivism, a dilemma of Kantian versus consequentialist ethics.

But it additionally will depend on the aforementioned hypothetical – a subjective judgement about whether or not figuring out you might have terminal cancer can be higher or worse, and by what measures.

Some cultures equally view disclosure as being worse. Doctors typically withhold diagnoses in Singapore, Japan and Lebanon, for instance. Interestingly, a US research of attitudes to cancer disclosure in aged folks discovered that Korean-American and Mexican-American respondents have been extra prone to view truth-telling as merciless and even dangerous. European-American and African-American respondents have been extra probably, on the different hand, to view it as empowering – data that provides people the company to make knowledgeable choices.

Quality of life

Then there’s the query of whether or not consciousness of a cancer diagnosis would possibly worsen life expectancy or probability of survival. On this level, the analysis is conflicting. Studies recommend that the reality of figuring out about a terminal diagnosis doesn’t appear to shorten a particular person’s lifespan, and that being instructed immediately causes much less emotional misery than if a particular person guesses it from their very own deteriorating situation. But an Iranian research of folks with gastrointestinal cancer discovered that ignorance about the diagnosis was related to a higher bodily, social and emotional high quality of life.

Regardless of the science, whereas watching the movie it was laborious to shake an uneasy sense of complicity in my aunt’s state of affairs, and the feeling that somebody ought to have instructed her that she had lung cancer. Billi expresses this concept to a feminine relative at one level in The Farewell.

“Tell her? Why would we do that?” is the reply. In case Nai Nai has issues she needs to do, says Billi, or to present her the likelihood to say goodbye.

The Farewell, like the choice the household in the end makes, is advanced and nuanced. There is not any straightforward strategy to say goodbye, no absolute prescription on how finest to stay and let stay, or die.



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