Introduction: Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer, and the second leading cause of cancer death in women. Due to advances in medicine, the 10 year survival rate is 80%, resulting in a large and growing number of breast cancer survivors. Definitions of cancer survivorship from a number of professional organizations and researchers vary, but the research is scant on the meaning of cancer survivorship to people with and without a prior cancer history.
Methods: Two studies were conducted (1) to compare individuals with and without a prior personal cancer diagnosis in terms of those who identified as survivors vs. those who did not identify as survivors and (2) to explore explanations of those with and without a prior personal cancer for the term cancer survivor. In Study 1, individuals were surveyed at cancer-themed community health fairs. In Study 2, women were surveyed at a breast oncology clinic.
Results: In Study 1 comparing those with and without a prior cancer diagnosis, prior cancer history was the best predictor of survivorship identity, and only three individuals without a prior cancer history included family and friends as survivors. In Study 2 of those with a personal history, longer time since diagnosis, type of cancer (ductal), and comparative risk (higher) were associated with survivor identity.
Conclusion: Completion of treatment was seen as a 'rite of passage', and thus, may be seen as a shift from the patient identity, which may have negative connotations, to the positive identity of survivor.
Implications: Definitions of survivorship vary considerably, and caution should be used when applying the term to those who have no prior personal cancer diagnosis and to those who have had a more recent cancer diagnosis with a more severe disease course.