Are you a cancer survivor? A review on cancer identity

Abstract

Purpose

Individuals diagnosed with cancer have been shown to interpret the term “cancer survivor” differently and this may have implications for how they cope with their illness. This article reviews the empirical research conducted in the field and aims to formulate recommendations for future research.

Methods

A literature search was conducted on PubMed, PsycInfo, Embase and CINAHL using search strategies customized for each database: standardized subject terms and a wide range of free-text terms for “cancer”, “survivor”, and “identity”. Data from 23 eligible papers were extracted and summarized.

Results

Analysis of the studies revealed that individuals diagnosed with cancer could be categorized into five groups based on their attitudes towards being a cancer survivor: embracing, constructive, ambiguous, resisting and non-salient. Identification as “cancer survivor” was found to be highly prevalent within the breast cancer community (77.9 %) and least among individuals diagnosed with prostate cancer (30.6 %). Self-identifying as a cancer survivor was related to better quality of life and mental wellbeing, with those having a childhood diagnosis more likely to transition successfully into adult care.

Conclusions

The findings show that, for a substantial group of individuals, “cancer survivor” is not a title earned upon receiving a cancer diagnosis or completion of treatment, but an identity that may be embraced in time after deliberation. Future studies should examine the endorsement rate in less common cancers and whether choice of cancer identity varies over time.

Implications for Cancer Survivors

Researchers and healthcare professionals should use caution when using the term “cancer survivor” so as not to alienate anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer but does not identify with it.

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Correspondence to Sze Yan Cheung.

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Cheung, S.Y., Delfabbro, P. Are you a cancer survivor? A review on cancer identity. J Cancer Surviv 10, 759–771 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11764-016-0521-z

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Keywords

  • Cancer survivor
  • Cancer survivorship
  • Cancer identity
  • Quality of life