Living post treatment: definitions of those with history and no history of cancer


Introduction: Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer, and the second leading cause of cancer death in women. Due to advances in medicine, the 10 year survival rate is 80%, resulting in a large and growing number of breast cancer survivors. Definitions of cancer survivorship from a number of professional organizations and researchers vary, but the research is scant on the meaning of cancer survivorship to people with and without a prior cancer history. Methods: Two studies were conducted (1) to compare individuals with and without a prior personal cancer diagnosis in terms of those who identified as survivors vs. those who did not identify as survivors and (2) to explore explanations of those with and without a prior personal cancer for the term cancer survivor. In Study 1, individuals were surveyed at cancer-themed community health fairs. In Study 2, women were surveyed at a breast oncology clinic. Results: In Study 1 comparing those with and without a prior cancer diagnosis, prior cancer history was the best predictor of survivorship identity, and only three individuals without a prior cancer history included family and friends as survivors. In Study 2 of those with a personal history, longer time since diagnosis, type of cancer (ductal), and comparative risk (higher) were associated with survivor identity. Conclusion: Completion of treatment was seen as a ‘rite of passage’, and thus, may be seen as a shift from the patient identity, which may have negative connotations, to the positive identity of survivor. Implications: Definitions of survivorship vary considerably, and caution should be used when applying the term to those who have no prior personal cancer diagnosis and to those who have had a more recent cancer diagnosis with a more severe disease course.

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Funding for this project was received from the Ohio Division of the American Cancer Society. We would also like to acknowledge Raquel Tobian, BS; Jaymia Mitchell, PhD; and Margaret Kuder, BS for their assistance in data collection and literature searches.

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Correspondence to Kimberly M. Kelly.

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Kelly, K.M., Shah, N., Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R. et al. Living post treatment: definitions of those with history and no history of cancer. J Cancer Surviv 5, 158–166 (2011).

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  • Cancer
  • Oncology
  • Survivorship
  • Psychosocial
  • Identity