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.