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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The cultural construction of breast cancer Mears, Bronwen Jane


This thesis explores the cultural construction of women's experiences with breast cancer in Vancouver, British Columbia. After completing treatment for breast cancer women must reformulate their personal biographies to include the diagnosis and treatment. This reformulation includes the reconstruction of self, both identity and body, and of biographical time and takes place within a social context. In this thesis I explore the cultural frameworks that guide these reformulations. I refer to these as breast cancer narratives. I interviewed 32 women who have completed treatment for breast cancer. There are two sets of data: one set of 29 collected in single interviews, and one set of three collected over multiple interviews. I analyze the interviews looking for common themes and structures from which I constructed breast cancer narratives. In Canadian society, cancer has been commonly portrayed as a "death sentence". Recently, there has been an attempt to transform this portrayal of cancer to one of a disease which can be survived. The breast cancer narratives include both portrayals of cancer, resulting in an ambiguity about survival. This ambiguity is resolved by constructing a viable discourse of hope for the future. During the process of diagnosis and treatment the participants learn a discourse of hope which is informed by biomedical culture and focuses on successful treatment. However, once treatment is complete, the participants are faced with challenges to their construction of hope, stemming from the belief that cancer is a terminal illness. To meet these challenges they modify their discourse of hope. I identify four cultural schema used by participants to reformulate their personal biographies. These schema link concepts of what may have caused the cancer and the evolving discourse of hope. This multiplicity of schema leave the potential for conflict. As a result of the multiple schema and modifications to the discourse of hope the constructions of breast cancer are diverse. Therefore there are multiple and conflicting constructions of breast cancer in Canadian Society. This is an important consideration when developing services for women who have had a diagnosis of breast cancer.

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