The meaning of the survivor identity for women with breast cancer

Karen Kaiser*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

154 Scopus citations


"Survivor" has become a ubiquitous and largely unquestioned term in culture and cancer discourse. While anecdotal evidence suggests women with breast cancer find fault with survivor images and discourse, the extent to which women identify with or reject the survivor identity has not been empirically studied. This paper examines whether women treated for breast cancer embrace survivorship. Data come from 39 in-depth interviews with women in the United States who completed treatment for breast cancer 3-18 months prior to the interview. Despite the positive meanings attached to survivorship, many women altered the meaning of survivorship or rejected survivorship. In particular, the survivor discourse alienated women who struggle with the threat of recurrence, who feel their cancer experience was not severe enough to merit this title, or who desire a private disease experience. These findings illustrate the failure of our cultural conceptions of cancer to adequately reflect lived experience and highlight how individuals actively "craft" illness meanings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)79-87
Number of pages9
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2008


  • Breast cancer
  • Culture
  • Identity
  • Illness experience
  • Meaning
  • Survivor
  • USA

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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