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To explore with Arabic-Australian patients and their communities, the cultural context of cancer, both sporadic and inherited, by examining their beliefs about its causes and the modes of communication about cancer with family, friends and the community.The design is an ethnographic and qualitative interview study with thematic analysis. Arabic-Australian participants were recruited in two stages. First, patients who had attended a family cancer clinic in Sydney, Australia, were invited to participate. Second, participants from the general community in Sydney were recruited with the aim of either verifying or challenging the reported findings from the clinic sample.A total of 38 interviews with 26 females and 12 males provided cultural descriptions of illnesses, including cancer, and its causes. The terminologies around cancer and a cancer diagnosis were believed to have more impact and generate greater fear in people in the Arabic community living in Australia than the terms used to describe a diagnosis of other illnesses. Despite this, those interviewed were aware of screening and community programs and were open to discuss their views about cancer with the research team.Arabic-Australians are an important group in the community with unique culture-specific attributes that can affect communication about cancer in the clinical setting. Barriers to communication such as the negative feelings associated with the word cancer and the stigma it arouses must be acknowledged. Culturally competent clinical practices with this group include the incorporation of these belief systems into the communication process and avoidance of stereotyping. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.