Living<=>Dying with metastatic breast cancer: women's accounts of living longer in smaller communities




Shermak, S. Lee

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As a life-limiting illness mediated by rapid advancements in biomedical technologies, metastatic breast cancer (MBC) now presents in increasingly unexpected ways where women are living longer. These women’s lives may not fit well with established healthcare and societal understandings of an advanced breast cancer, including disease progression and prognosis. This qualitative inquiry aims to think differently about women’s daily lives with an ongoing MBC. While also considering the underexplored context of these women living in smaller communities. I explored communities on Central Vancouver Island, which is on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. The research question directing my inquiry was: how are women, who are living with MBC as a life-limiting illness over an extended period, produced as both living and dying subjects? Informing this research was a feminist relational materialist approach with a healthcare practitioner orientation, primarily informed by Braidotti. I used multiple data collection methods centred around sequential interviews with 14 women who had been living relatively well with MBC for at least two years. Working with relational materialist and post qualitative principles, analysis disclosed the importance of temporal pulses and bodily transpositions in women’s lives. Temporal pulses speak to how time was laden with tensions such that a distinctive part of living with ongoing MBC was an embodied sense of fluctuating time. There was also the idea as to how, at any given moment, women could bodily know their illness and mortality through varying frequencies of the presence and/or absence of markers of living and dying, often at the same time. Bodily transpositions speak to how life-limiting illness was not so much about women moving from one set of circumstances to another as part of a clean-edged transition. Rather, the women navigated daily life with few set waymarkers. Within this context, ‘hope’ took on new forms and living with their advanced breast cancer became a kind of endurance demarcated by what I refer to as generative living. These findings call into question the ways in which MBC gets talked about in categorical terms as palliative or end of life, and/or as chronic. Findings are an opportunity for healthcare practitioners, policymakers, and interdisciplinary leaders to further understand MBC specific to our contemporary context. Project findings renew discussions of how best to support women’s needs, including the ways MBC is talked about. There is also the opportunity to direct further research into MBC as an example of today’s shifting boundaries of living and dying (which I am framing as living<=>dying).



Braidotti, living and dying with advanced cancer, living longer with life-limiting illness, metastatic breast cancer, post qualitative inquiry, feminist relational materialism, women’s health in smaller communities