The salience of cancer and the “survivor” identity for people who have completed acute cancer treatment: a qualitative study

Katherine Clegg Smith, Ann C. Klassen, Kisha I. Coa, Susan M. Hannum

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Purpose: Globally, there are nearly 33 million persons who have survived 5 or more years after a diagnosis of cancer [1]. We explore the salience of cancer in such people’s self-concept as an important element for creating patient-centered care for those living with a cancer history. Methods: Our data are responses to a free-listing exercise and subsequent qualitative interviews with 53 individuals aged between 45 and 74 who were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or breast or prostate cancer at least 3 years prior and had completed acute treatment. Participants lived in the Baltimore-Washington region of the USA. Results: Cancer was not necessarily salient to participants’ current self-concept, and espousal of a “survivor” identity is complex. We construct a typology of seven contrasting meanings of “survivor” based upon participants’ narratives (factual, beaten, functional, temporary, adversity, passage of time, and lucky or blessed) and present interviewees’ rationales as to why they did or did not adopt a survivorship identity. Conclusions: We examine the complexity of “survivorship” as an identity and people’s affiliation with it, as well as how this relates to other salient and fluid elements of people’s sense of self within a life course perspective. Implications for cancer survivors: Understanding how cancer factors into people’s self-concept throughout the life course is important for designing effective, patient-centered programs that acknowledge diverse experiences and expectations and possible changes with the passage of time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)457-466
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Cancer Survivorship
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016


  • Cancer
  • Identity
  • Phenomenology
  • Qualitative methods
  • Survivorship

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Oncology(nursing)


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