Remaking the self: trauma, teachable moments, and the biopolitics of cancer survivorship

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As numerous scholars have noted, cancer survivorship is often represented in popular discourse as providing an opportunity for a physical, emotional, and spiritual makeover. However, this idea that cancer enables the self to be remade on all levels is also increasingly evoked in the field of psychosocial oncology. Exploring cancer survivorship as a biopolitical phenomenon, I focus on two concepts that have become central to understandings of the disease: the "teachable moment" and "post-traumatic growth." Drawing primarily on representations of cancer survivorship in the clinical literature, I suggest that cancer is increasingly seen to present a unique opportunity to catalyze the patient's physical and psychological development. In this framework, the patient can no longer be relied upon to transform him or herself: this change must be externally driven, with clinicians taking advantage of the trauma that cancer entails to kick-start the patient into action. Broadening my analysis to the concepts of "trauma" and "development" writ large, I go on to suggest that survivorship discourse seems to partake of a larger and relatively recent meta-narrative about development-both individual and societal--and the positive opportunity that trauma is seen to present to stimulate reconstruction on a grand scale.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)584-600
Number of pages17
JournalCulture, medicine and psychiatry
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2012


  • Humans
  • Neoplasms
  • Stress, Psychological
  • Survivors
  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

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