SfAA 2017 Conference Feature Part 2: “Experiences and Identity in Long-term and Chronic Illnesses”

This week on the blog we are continuing our feature of a paper session from the 2017 Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) Annual Meeting which took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico from March 28th through April 1st. This session was entitled “Experiences and Identity in Long-term and Chronic Illnesses” and featured Beth Moretzsky, Karen Dyer, Marlaine Gray, and Ellen Rubinstein (full program from the SfAA meeting available here). Here, we present a summary of Karen Dyer and Marlaine Gray’s presentations. Part one of this feature is available here.

Karen Dyer (VCU) – Examining Health and Illness after Treatment for Colorectal Cancer: Long-term Healthcare Needs and Quality of Life

From her research, Dyer discusses the attachments formed between people with a history of colorectal cancer and their oncology team, which stems from both a fear of recurrence of illness and an especially strong emotional bond forged through mutual experiencing of a life-threatening disease. Dyer also discusses the consequences of the ambiguity of cancer follow-up care. Questions frequently include, who is the best doctor to see? If multiple care providers are seen by people with a history of colorectal cancer, will tests will be duplicated or even missed? Which emerging symptoms are serious enough to warrant further investigation? This continuing surveillance of a “survivor’s” body encompasses many medical repercussions from the treatment of cancer and reality of recurrence risk, often transforming people into life-long patients.

Dyer interviewed 30 participants in Virginia who had a history of colorectal cancer and were at least five years post-treatment. As this category of people with a history of colorectal cancer increases, there is a growing number of individuals using, and in need of, follow-up care. Yet this need is contrasted against a shortage of oncologists and primary care providers who are able to treat this group of people. Dyer asks, how do we treat and provide adequate long-term care to people for years, possibly for the rest of their lives, in a way that is not going to compromise or strain the oncology clinics? What are the physical, social, and emotional needs of longer-term colorectal cancer “survivors,” and how does their cancer experience impact these needs?

Dyer explains that most participants with a history of colorectal cancer did see an oncology team regularly for a follow-up care. For this group, as with other groups with specific types of cancer histories, the five-year mark is a critical period where individuals get discharged from monitoring and care because the risk of recurrence is statistically very low. Yet from Dyer’s research, a large number of her participants were planning to continue to see their oncology team after they had passed the five-year mark. Most had no formal “survivorship” care plan, and in general, there was not an understanding of what future care would entail.

Many individuals with a history of colorectal cancer continue to see their oncology team because of the intense bond and emotional connection they have developed. Going through a serious life-threatening experience created an attachment and deep sense of friendship. Dyer discusses that the oncology team fills a role of social friendship and support during the cancer experience when many other relationships may change. For Dyer’s participants, the oncology team has seen them in their “worst moments” and guided them through this demanding treatment. This type of connection and support is difficult to abandon. One woman said, “I need my security blanket, and yeah, I guess that’s what Dr. L [her oncologist] is.” This sense of being cared for and understood will be greatly missed. Any kind of care planning needs to take that strength of bond and trust into account.

Ambiguity surrounding cancer follow-up care is also an important dimension of Dyer’s work. Many participants report difficulty several years post-treatment when symptoms or health problems manifest in uncertain ways. Participants report difficulties distinguishing between normal aging processes, potential non-cancer related problems such as diabetes, or potential cancer-related, or cancer treatment-related, effects. Dyer uses fatigue as an example. Many participants spoke about being considerably more fatigued than they usually were. While this fatigue could be part of a normal aging process, it could also signal a variety of diseases or indicate the arrival of a cancer recurrence. Ambiguous symptoms such as fatigue lead to a high stakes, complex decision-making process.

People experiencing these types of indistinct symptoms often express an uncertainty about who they should contact with questions and when. Participants frequently did not want to “bother” their oncologist or be perceived as overreacting. Self-diagnosis and self-assessments of the level of seriousness of these symptoms were often the responses.


Marlaine Gray (GHC) – Shouldn’t We Be Listening?: Using Twitter for Recruitment, Patient Engagement, and Data Collection in a Study about How Young Adults with End Stage Cancer Make Medical Decisions

Gray begins by discussing research methodological complications when researching young people with metastatic cancer who are geographically spread all across the United States. It can be difficult to find and access this understudied population. Gray also discusses the sensitive nature of the topic is often compounded by time constraints; asking a patient for an hour of their time as part of an interview is difficult when that individual may not have a lot of time left.

Using an already active Twitter community, Gray investigated how young adults with metastatic cancer made medical decisions and whether or not their care matched their ultimate goals. The research was called The Clare Project, named after and featuring a personal story of metastatic cancer. The intention was to understand what these patients wanted for their remaining life and quality of life and translate those goals back into the medical discourse in order to match up treatments. Most participants wanted more quality time with their family, yet they were often being advised to get surgeries. Gray explains this disjunction can be problematic since metastatic cancer patients may never return home from the hospital after these types of surgeries, or they be unable to recover completely and be unable to fully engage with their families again.

Twitter became a way to contact people who were already publically speaking about their cancer experiences. The population of young people online is very active in seeking treatment, finding other patients to connect with, and finding out what the treatments are like. While there are also blogs, threads like Reddit, Facebook groups and pages, and other online message boards, Twitter emerged as the most successful way of communicating with this population. People are online constantly to discuss their cancer experiences.

The metastatic cancer Twitter community uses hashtags such as #mayacc (metastatic adolescent and young adult cancer community), #hpm (hospice and palliative medicine), or #metsmonday, where people with metastatic cancer post about their experiences on Monday. After launching their call for recruitment on Twitter, the Clare Project (Twitter page available here) achieved 200% of their recruitment goal within 24 hours. By using established hashtags and following prominent community members, Gray was able to reach an extensive participant audience.

Adolescent and young adult cancer patients are already actively using social media, many joining Twitter after their diagnosis. Twitter becomes a means of social connection. Gray articulates people are using Twitter to discuss decisions they have to make surrounding their metastatic cancer treatments. Even though patients talk with their doctors and family members, they are using the Twitter support groups to find out what the treatment experiences are. It is these treatment narratives from fellow metastatic cancer sufferers which holds more decision-making weight. Some of these decisions are very high stakes and are based on their peer, rather than medical, advice.

Accessing the first-hand expertise of other patients is labeled as a different kind of expertise than they can get from the medical community. Additionally, for side effects, participants express that doctors can tell them what the treatment is, but their fellow patients will express what the treatment is like and how to manage it. This social support is crucial when participants often do not know anyone else with these types of cancer.

Gray also discusses a kind of “legacy activism,” where people would know they were terminal with few options in their own treatment, but they wanted to advocate for more research funding and attention to metastatic cancer. Social media became a way to engage in social activism. Even though people could not physically go to advocacy events, they could virtually participate from their bedrooms and still spread their message. Through Twitter, people can participate in research and campaigning who would otherwise be unable to do so.

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SfAA 2017 Conference Feature Part 1: “Experiences and Identity in Long-term and Chronic Illnesses”

This week on the blog we are highlighting part one of a paper session from the 2017 Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) Annual Meeting which took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico from March 28th through April 1st. This session was entitled “Experiences and Identity in Long-term and Chronic Illnesses” and featured Beth Moretzsky, Karen Dyer, Marlaine Gray, and Ellen Rubinstein (full program from the SfAA meeting available here). Here, we present a summary of Beth Moretzsky and Ellen Rubinstein’s presentations. Next week we will feature part two with Karen Dyer and Marlaine Gray.

Beth Moretzsky (GSU) – Cancer Survivorship as Contested Category and Lived Reality

Moretzsky begins by maintaining the term “cancer survivor” is a social category and societal label which does not adequately represent the individuals it claims to include. The label does not encompass the multifaceted, lived experiences of those living with post-cancer treatment and instead conveys a cultural idea of what these individuals can represent to other people. In 2014 the American Cancer Society identified over 14 million living individuals in the United States who received a cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives. Moretzsky states that as we think about how to reach, support, and provide services for this population that has unique medical and social needs, we need to understand how this term “cancer survivor” is interpreted. We also need to appreciate how people who have had cancer respond to this label frequently used by non-profit organizations and the medical community.

Life after treatment for cancer is a period of complicated uncertainty. Rather than a unified “survivorship” experience which is often portrayed by the media, Moretzsky’s fieldwork examines how people characterize their own lives post-treatment. Between June and August of 2016 Moretzsky conducted 19 interviews with individuals who had completed treatment for several types of cancer. Her goal was to determine how participants conceptualize the idea of “cancer survivorship,” whether or not they thought of themselves as a “cancer survivor,” and how stories of experiences, treatments, and diagnoses were carried into the present.

Three main findings of Moretzsky’s research state that “cancer survivor” was rejected as a useful category because of (1) a confusing biological and medical usage, (2) a tendency to define people solely on their illness, and (3) because of various social implications of the term’s usage. Many people merged “cancer survivor” as a biomedical term, indicating a stage in the medical process, with a colloquial label for individuals who had undergone this diagnosis. The line between the social and medical categories often blurs, revealing a meaning- and value-laden term with little practical use. Yet no one can seem to agree upon who falls within the category. Moretzsky asks, who gets to define and speak about illness for these individuals?

In this research, the discomfort over the use of the “cancer survivor” term came up time and time again. Cancer “survivors” are represented as heroes who have triumphed over this illness, perpetuating problematic notions of who gets defined as a survivor, as well as the negative social impacts of applying this label. Moretzsky argues the label placed onto people disregards the experiences of those individuals. The public’s support of individuals battling cancer conjures up the image of a successful warrior rather than an individual with a complex daily experience. The models of success paints “survivors” as strong, optimistic, and successful, even if those individuals do not see themselves in those narratives of triumph. Moretzsky states that not all individuals with a history of cancer view themselves as the pink warriors that the media shares every October. While some participants stated they felt driven to become better people as a result of their cancer, almost as if they needed to fill our societal search for heroes, others strongly resisted this categorization as a “cancer survivor.” The latter often argued against problematic notions that there was something special about them that warranted their persistence, saying the model should instead be: “Don’t be a hero. Ask for the help you need.” These varying responses to treatment contradict the notions of “surviving heroically” and suggested complexity and diversity to human experiences.

Additionally, for many with lingering side effects, financial problems, and emotional complications, this term “cancer survivor” signified a success that may never be achieved, and misrepresented the challenges they continue to face long after treatment completion.

Moretzsky argues that subjectivity is a better model and representation of a person because it is an inherently dynamic concept. Subjectivity allows for agency in how people are self-identifying. To follow the lead of subjectivity would mean we could enable those who have completed cancer treatment to define themselves and categorize their own lives as they see fit. Rather than upholding the category of “cancer survivorship,” allowing individuals to self-identify according to their own experiences would enable other sentiments to be expressed. In Moretzsky’s research, nearly all those who did identify as a “cancer survivor” accepted the original definition of “cancer survivorship” as a biomedical phase of treatment, still expressing problems with some of the heroic language hidden in “survivorship.”

This research suggests that many organizations, particularly those providing post-treatment services for cancer, should critically assess their language. If “cancer survivors” do not identify in that way, it limits the reach of organization marketing to this population, potentially missing many of the people they are trying to help.


Ellen Rubinstein (and Benjamin Crabtree) (RWJMS) – Lost in Translation: The Perils of Prioritizing Cancer Survivorship in Primary Care

Rubinstein begins by describing “Parker” as a man in the Denver suburbs who had left Colorado many years ago to attend a Big 10 college and compete as a pole vaulter. In his sophomore year, after what was assumed to be pain and damage from a sports-related injury, blood tests revealed he had osteosarcoma, or bone cancer. “One day I’m on campus and literally the next day I was back in Denver searching for hospitals around the world.” After a brutal round of chemotherapy, Parker’s leg was amputated mid-thigh. Eight years later the pain started again “out of nowhere.” Even though Parker’s pain was directly related to his cancer-caused amputation, Parker disclosed that he felt it may be better not to tell his primary care physicians about his cancer history. “All of a sudden your treatment for what’s wrong stops right there… It can really take over medically.”

Rubinstein explains that Parker’s story provides us with an opportunity for critical reflection on the push to integrate “cancer survivorship” into routine primary care practice. For Parker, pain was a far more salient issue than cancer. Even though the two ailments were intertwined, he spoke of them as if they were separate entities with their own biography. Rubinstein states Parker did not like to identity himself as a “cancer survivor.”

The story of the “cancer survivor” is a story about the multiple translations, or semiotic events, that occur both within the context of an office visit and within the wider context of a patient’s life. The status of “survivorship” occurs at the moment of diagnosis, where a patient plays an active role as an embattled warrior who is supposed to emerge from the fight victorious. Yet as clinicians begin to recognize that cancer is a chronic condition, it becomes impossible to escape cancer’s existential clutches, leading to a problematic life sentence. Rubinstein quotes, “One cannot just live, but must always be not-dying.”

Further, there is a distinction between “I have” and “I am” diseases. “I am” encroaches on an individual’s self-identity categories. Cancer “survivorship” falls into a similar category: “I have” cancer during an active treatment, but “I am” a cancer survivor. In the transition from active treatment to follow-up care, going from having a disease as part of the body to occupying a medically and clinically delineated subject position, this one medical event now defined them. Rubinstein discusses that many people survive other sickness events yet are not referred to as “survivors.” One participant states she has a history of mononucleosis and hypertension, yet has never been referred to as a “mono survivor” or “hypertension survivor.” Identifying as a “cancer survivor” overshadows the remainder of individual complexity.

Rubinstein argues the medical community is so steeped in cancer rhetoric that when a patient complains of various maladies, such as sexual dysfunction or weight gain, the immediate or inevitable response is that “these are well-known late and long-term effects of cancer and its treatments.” In making this assumption however, clinicians have already ignored what the patient is saying. If the patient does not identify their symptoms as being related to their cancer, then what is the benefit of forcing them to interpret their symptoms in that way?

Part of this framing of symptoms stems from a political and economic necessity for identifying cancer “survivors” as a unique population with distinct medical needs. Making a kinship of individuals who have experienced cancer, contrasted against those who have not, makes them a large and powerful constituency. Yet cancer in reality is slippery, chaotic, and constantly being redefined. Experiences and outcomes vary widely, making it impossible to group together the vast array of subjectivities into one entity. Rubinstein argues that current biomedical discourse does a poor job of capturing complex and diverse lived experiences.

Rubinstein concludes by asking if an individual does not consider themselves as a “cancer survivor,” then what are the broader implications for their health and well-being when clinicians insist that their current problems are the direct result of their cancer or cancer treatment. How much does etiology matter in the moment of the clinical encounter, and how much does it influence a patient’s future relationship with their primary care physician? Rubinstein states that in de-emphasizing the “survivor” in primary care conversations, we recognize that a history of cancer is only one set of concerns among many.


Part two of “Experiences and Identity in Long-term and Chronic Illnesses” featuring Karen Dyer and Marlaine Gray will continue next week. 

From the Archive: AMC’s Breaking Bad, Empowerment, and Terminal Illness

In the “From the Archive” series, we highlight articles published throughout the journal’s history. We look forward to sharing with our readers these samples of the innovative research that CMP has published on the cultural life of medicine across the globe.


In “From the Archive,” we generally highlight older publications from the journal and discuss their importance for medical anthropology and cultural studies of medicine today. This week, we are taking a turn to revisit a newer piece from 2013 that has been one of CMP’s most popular articles: Mark A. Lewis’ “From Victim to Victor: ‘Breaking Bad’ and the Dark Potential of the Terminally Empowered.”

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Lewis, an oncologist, opens by describing a recent shift in the treatment of cancer. With new and experimental treatments growing in number, patients are encouraged to feel hopeful about therapy for their cancer, rather than defeated in the face of a potentially terminal condition. These new scientific innovations in treatment, therefore, are altering the rhetorics surrounding cancer diagnoses. Cancer is something to be overcome, or even battled. In the age of the “Live Strong” campaign, and the casting of cancer patients into fighters, new notions of what it means to endure this illness are developing.

The key to AMC’s Breaking Bad, Lewis argues, is that the creators seize upon this new model of the cancer patient and then betray the audience’s expectations that his battle against illness is a “noble” one. Rather than having a diagnosis opening a realm to hope, it lends Walter White the potential to take risks he would not have taken in good health. Imminent death “emboldens” Walter, yet this newfound audacity is channeled towards selfish, perhaps prideful, and certainly criminal ends.

Lewis notes that these behavioral, psychological shifts in cancer patients come under the purview of a new field deemed psycho-oncology. This budding discipline addresses the mental wellness and conditions of cancer patients, whose diagnosis carries somatic as well as psychological effects. As the article suggests, stress for cancer patients extends beyond the worries they have about the severity of their illness: it includes anxiety about the financial and personal costs of the treatment needed to ‘battle off’ the disease. For White, this entails not only having the means to treat his illness and support his family, but also to be self-sustaining, hence why he turns down assistance from wealthy benefactors and instead makes and sells crystal meth.

Walter White therefore follows in the steps of a cancer patient whose diagnosis opens a realm of possibilities and encourages him to take risks in fighting off his condition. However, this transformation alters what victory means for Walter. As he descends deeper into the meth business, the terms of victory are no longer noble. Walter murders his competitors, and after the publication of Lewis’ article, declares at the end of the series that his drug-dealing empire is what gives him life. His pride is in his business, not in overcoming his cancer. Walter’s potential is unlocked by the cancer, yet he subverts the narrative of a “noble” patient who survives his dire diagnosis. His cancer has merely positioned him to accomplish what he would have not otherwise set out to do.

Lewis’ article demonstrates the centrality of illness narratives and new models of illness experience to popular media. His article draws on medical science, popular health campaigns, and on modern-day encounters with terminal illness to inform viewers’ expectations of what path patients might, and should, follow.

To access the article and read an abstract, click here:

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-013-9341-z

Book Release: Paul Stoller’s “Yaya’s Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World”

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Image from UC Press website

Out this month from the University of Chicago Press is Paul Stoller’s book Yaya’s Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World. The text traces the author’s friendship with a Songhay trader from Niger named Yaya Harouna: a man who moved to the United States as Stoller, an anthropologist, had likewise made a journey from the USA to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer. Their story begins whenever Stoller meets Yaya selling artwork in an African market in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where Stoller carried out research.

Although the men’s histories are markedly different, they become close after the two are each diagnosed with cancer: this serves as the heart of Yaya’s Story, and the experience upon which the two men’s culturally divergent, yet not entirely dissimilar, narratives cross paths. With extensive publications in the genres of both ethnography and memoir, Stoller is certain to blend keen anthropological insight with deeply personal accounts of human suffering, endurance, and resilience in the face of illness across cultures in his latest book.

Stoller, Professor of Anthropology at West Chester University, is a 1994 winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2013 recipient of the prestigious Anders Retzius Gold Medal in Anthropology from the King of Sweden.

You can find out more about the book here, at the UC Press website:

http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/Y/bo18882897.html