Self-identity after cancer: "survivor", "victim", "patient", and "person with cancer"

J Gen Intern Med. 2009 Nov;24 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):S430-5. doi: 10.1007/s11606-009-0993-x.


Background: Living through cancer often involves developing new identities which may strongly influence well-being and relationships with care providers, yet little is currently known about these post-cancer identities.

Objectives: To examine (1) the extent to which four post-cancer identities (patient, person who has had cancer, victim, and survivor) are adopted, (2) relations between each identity and involvement in cancer-related activities and mental and physical well-being, and (3) correlates of these identities.

Design: Cross-sectional questionnaire-based study.

Participants: 168 young to middle-aged adults who had previously experienced cancer.

Measurements: Cancer identifications, background variables, psychological functioning, cancer risk appraisals and coping, cancer-related activities, and mental and physical well-being.

Results: At least somewhat, 83% endorsed survivor identity, 81% identity of "person who has had cancer", 58% "patient", and 18% "victim". Identities were minimally correlated with one another and differentially associated with involvement in cancer-related activities. Survivor and person who has had cancer identities correlated with involvement in most cancer-related activities such as wearing cancer-related items and talking about prevention (ps < 0.5). Survivor identity correlated with better psychological well-being and post-traumatic growth, victim identity with poorer well-being (ps < 0.5); neither identifying as a patient nor a person with cancer was related to well-being. Through regression analyses, identities were shown to be explained by unique combination of background, functioning, appraisal and coping variables.

Conclusions: Survivor identity appears most common and most associated with active involvement and better psychological well-being, but other identifications are also common and simultaneously held. Adoption of specific cancer identities is likely to impact interactions with health care providers, including those in general internal medicine, and health behavior changes.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Patients / psychology*
  • Quality of Life / psychology
  • Self Concept*
  • Survivors / psychology*
  • Young Adult