Doing, being, becoming and belonging

Surviving a life threatening illness affects not only activities but also identity.

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer worldwide. More people are surviving bowel cancer now, and are living with the sudden and unexpected transitions associated with life threatening illness and the associated changes in body structures and functions. A range of  activities, or occupations, are affected as a result.

Elizabeth Martin, an Occupational Therapy Lecturer at Otago Polytechnic, embarked on a study for her PhD through AUT into the impact that surviving bowel cancer has on a person's being, their sense of belonging and who they can become. A survivor of bowel cancer herself, Lizzie interviewed 11 other survivors. Thematic analysis of the interview data identified three themes:

  • "I had to heal myself" - Participants reported a sense of self-determination in their recovery, taking responsibility for diet and exercise for example.
  • "Life's too short" - Participants were hugely appreciative at having a second chance and chose to prioritise time on people and activities that were important to them.
  • "The person I've become" - Participants noticed changes in their interpersonal style, becoming less patient and more forthright as they lived with the constant uneasiness due to the risk of recurrence.

People do not choose bowel cancer but have to rapidly change their lives to accommodate it, which in the process changed who they became. Some participants were not entirely comfortable with their new identity, a finding which is important for survivors, families and carers to appreciate.


February 2021