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Making Meaning of the Illness Experience: Narratives of Partners of Cancer Survivors

Tidwell, Heather
Committee Members: 
Dr. Laura Miller
May 2015


Receiving a cancer diagnosis not only uproots the life of the patient but also the lives of the patient’s family members and loved ones. Adjustments in communication and disclosure as well as in identity must be made at various stages of the cancer trajectory. Survivorship, specifically, poses its own set of challenges as both cancer survivors and their partners must cope with perpetual uncertainty as to whether the cancer is truly over (Fife, 1994; Lethborg, Kissane, & Burns, 2003; Miller & Caughlin, 2012). Furthermore, although partners report being significantly impacted by a cancer diagnosis, they are often understudied when it comes to understanding the illness experience (Goldsmith, 2009). This study employs a symbolic interactionism perspective and a narrative methodology to uncover the interplay among identity, communication, and uncertainty as it relates to the meaning making process over the course of the cancer trajectory. Comparative analyses of ten in-depth interviews with partners of cancer survivors suggest meaning making for partners of cancer survivors is complex and deeply interrelated with identity, communication, and uncertainty and changes over time. These findings are discussed as they pose implications for both theory and practice. Areas for future research are also proposed.