Living with and beyond cancer

Sense of identity or self-image

Having and surviving cancer can affect how some people feel about themselves as a person or how they think others see them. This may or may not be related to how they feel about bodily changes caused by cancer or its treatment (see Body image).
 
For some people an important aspect of their self-image is their ability to carry out their usual roles in life. Some men we spoke to suggested that having cancer and being left less fit or weaker than before had made them feel less of a man because they believed their masculine image included being seen as fit and strong and able to provide for their family. Ian feels that his past identity was bound up with his occupation as a police officer and is glad that since his leukaemia he has moved to a different part of the country where people didn’t know him in that role. For some people, being able to resume their usual sporting activities was very important in restoring their self-image. Although these aspects of self-image may apply equally to men and women, none of the women we spoke to mentioned them.
A man who had a lymphoma on his spine that caused temporary paralysis said that for a while his identity changed because he couldn’t walk and used a wheelchair. He was glad when he regained his mobility and no longer needed to ‘explain who I was through the illness’. He was also sad when told he could no longer donate blood.
 
A woman whose only treatment so far for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia had been oral chemotherapy said that having cancer made her feel no longer a whole person, and that this was not related to femininity. Some people were concerned that those with cancer should resist feeling that they are a victim or being treated as a victim by other people. While some people felt that having had cancer had not changed who they were, others felt it had become part of their identity.
 
The term ‘cancer survivor’ is often used to describe people who are living beyond a cancer diagnosis. While some people we spoke to identified with this term as an accurate description of themselves, many didn’t like it and said they would never use it to identify themselves, with the possible exception of when they were talking to other people in the same situation. Several explained that they didn’t want any kind of label that was associated with their cancer and just wanted to be treated normally by other people. Alan (Interview 33) said, “I don’t view myself purely in relation to cancer, so I think describing myself as a cancer survivor sort of identifies me in a way in which I don’t identify myself really”. 
Some people said that using the term ‘cancer survivor’ implied a sense of control over the condition, whereas they believed that whether or not they survived the cancer was down to luck or to good medical care. Vic, who had colorectal cancer 7 years ago, said, “It is a matter of luck whether you succeed in beating it or not.”
Several felt that their illness had not been severe enough for them to warrant the term ‘survivor’ and that other types of cancer, or other life experiences altogether, could be tougher. Some people preferred to refer to themselves as someone who had survived or recovered from cancer rather than a ‘cancer survivor’. Others thought that it was inappropriate to refer to themselves as a ‘cancer survivor’ because they couldn’t be sure that the disease wouldn’t recur or because they were living with an incurable, chronic form of cancer such as chronic leukaemia or low-grade lymphoma.


​Last reviewed August 2015.

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