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Abstract

Personal identity is self-evidently important to us all. Identity is a philosophically complex subject, but there is some agreement that memory, embodiment and continuity are essential components. The sense of memory includes ‘future memory’, the kind of memory we would like to construct for ourselves as our lives proceed. While the sense of personal identity is internal to the individual, a sense of that person's identity exists in the minds of others. Extreme experiences threaten the element of continuity, because they may bring bodily changes as well as cognitive changes that challenge central values. Restoring or preserving continuity is a major task for survivors. The ways in which people experience discontinuity because of cancer illness, and the ways in which they manage this experience emerges from the narratives of the survivors of cancer and in the narratives of health care workers who look after them. People manage discontinuity by reference to stable ‘anchor points’ in their beliefs and values; by re-constructing versions of their pre-experience identities, drawing on past memory and finding ways to preserve a continuity between past memory, present experience and constructions of the future; by using the experience to develop established facets of identity; and by imbuing the experience with meaning and recognising the enlarged identity made possible by survival. Those who cannot achieve a sense of continuity may feel alienated from themselves, their friends and family. All these methods of management may be used by one person to negotiate the post-experience identity in its different social interactions.

The experience of the survivor can be further understood by recognising the challenge posed by extreme experience to the sense of continuity of both embodied self and memory. A satisfactory discourse of survival has yet to enter the public domain. This lack adds to the burdens of survivors, including those who have survived cancer. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.