Volunteering: biographical continuity for women with cancer

Watts, Jacqueline H. (2011). Volunteering: biographical continuity for women with cancer. In: 9th International Conference on Grief and Bereavement in Contemporary Society and Association for Death Education and Counseling 33rd Annual Conference, 22-25 Jun 2011, Miami, USA.

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This paper discusses ethnographic participant observation research conducted at a community cancer drop-in facility in southern England. This facility is a non-clinical setting with emphasis on the provision of psychosocial support. The aim of the research was to explore why people attend the drop-in and which aspects of the facility are most valued. Data reveal a range of user motivation and coping responses. For a small group of older women using the service, efforts to maintain a congruent and socially useful ‘self’ were centred on active community participation. The key strategy for maintaining biographical continuity (Bury, 1982) and preserving their status as active citizens, was commitment to a range of volunteering activities that prioritised the value of ‘other-centredness’, even in the face of deteriorating health. Discussion of daily routines focused on a range of voluntary roles at a local school, citizens’ advice centre, a charity shop and a day centre for disabled young people. This ‘work’ was found to contribute to personal ‘wellness’ and social inclusion, enhancing quality of life. A sense of duty to ‘the other’, in the form of committed voluntary work, counteracts personal losses arising from cancer (Auger, 2007) and fosters resilience that increasingly has become part of the cancer narrative (Dein, 2006). The literature documents an enormous diversity of response to cancer from those living with the disease, ranging from resigned stoicism to severe depression; this article highlights voluntarism as an alternative response to a threatened identity from cancer through emphasis on a good life (Woods, 2007).

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