Untold Stories, Unheard Lives: A Study of How Adolescents with Cancer Create Selfhood through Narrative

Since the upcoming release of my book Chronicling Childhood Cancer: A Collection of Personal Stories by Children and Teens with Cancer is just around the corner (8 days!)– my thesis is available at http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/107767. It was truly an honor for me to be nominated and chosen as a recipient of the Virginia L. Voss Memorial Award for academic writing for this research.

My thesis provides more information about my research methodology as well as the scholarly relevance of these narratives. I wanted to make it available here to all those who may be interested in learning more about how these narratives were collected, what we can learn from these adolescents, and what we can do with these narratives moving forward.

Below is the abstract for my thesis:

Illness narratives, especially those about cancer, have become increasingly prevalent in recent years in an attempt to communicate experiences with illness. Yet amongst cancer narratives, experiences of childhood and adolescent cancer have largely been left untold. Stories shared about youth with cancer have mostly been written from other perspectives such as by parents, health professionals, or public relations personnel, but rarely from an adolescent’s own view. While some memoirs confront cancer retroactively, such as Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, few or none are written by adolescents as they are currently experiencing cancer.

This thesis aims to fill the void of narratives by adolescents with cancer. Since cancer is a living reality for so many adolescents, it is troublesome that these youth have not had the opportunity to give voice to these experiences. It is problematic, I argue, not to listen to these often unspoken voices, for they can provide insight into marginal experiences as told by the ill. These narratives can reveal the subjective illness experiences of a diverse population.

My thesis explores how adolescents with cancer at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital express their experiences through writing, drawing, and speaking about cancer. I sat down with adolescent patients and asked guiding questions that they responded to through any or all of these mediums. These narratives illuminate how adolescents make sense of their cancer and treatment as well as how these understandings affect their developing sense of self.

My introduction begins by tracing the history of illness narratives and autobiographies about childhood to understand the current void, and thereby the urgency, of life writing by adolescents with cancer. In the first chapter, I delve into my research methods and the ethical concerns that arise with adolescent involvement and researcher intervention. I acknowledge how my methodological approach has in effect influenced the creation of these narratives.

Chapter two explores how adolescents define cancer and chemotherapy. While many defined cancer as a disease, elaborations often deviated to include but also challenge perceptions of cancer as an uncontrollable excess, an impairment or disability, and an evil. Many perceived chemotherapy similarly and sometimes struggled to distinguish between the two. I navigate through these blurred understandings, ultimately to recognize their implications on adolescents with cancer.

Building off these perspectives, the third chapter investigates how experiences of cancer and chemotherapy affect an adolescent’s sense of self. Narrative exposes conceptualizations of the self, specifically pertaining to the period of adolescence, the body with cancer, the self as a patient, the desire for normalcy, and the self as a social being.

In the fourth and final chapter, I expand the implications of my interactive research methodology and of these adolescent cancer narratives. I consider the broader impact my research may have on narrative studies, medicine, and the interdisciplinary fields of medical humanities and narrative medicine. Most importantly, this thesis enables adolescent agency and allows these individuals, with personal and intimate experiences of their own, to enter into the discourse that surrounds their lives.

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Filed under Chronicling Childhood Cancer: Illuminating the Illness Experience through Narrative

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