We explored working and living with cancer at a large research-intensive National Health Service (NHS) hospital breast cancer service and adjoining non-governmental organisation (NGO). The project had three elements that were largely autonomous in practice but conceptually integrated through a focus on personalised cancer medicine. Di Sherlock held conversations with staff and patients from which she produced a collection of poems, Written Portraits. At the same time, we conducted interviews and observation in the hospital, and hosted a public series of science cafés in the NGO.
The trajectory of this project was not pre-determined, but we found that the poetry residency provided a context for viewing participation in experimental cancer care and vice versa. Taking themes from the poetry practice, we show how they revealed categories of relevance to participants and illuminated others that circulated in the hospital and NGO. Reciprocally, turning to findings from long-term ethnographic research with patients, we show that their observations were not only representations but also tools for navigating life in waiting with cancer. The categories that we discovered and assembled about living and working with cancer do not readily combine into an encompassing picture, we argue, but instead provide alternating perspectives.
Through analysis of different forms of research participation, we hope to contribute to an understanding of how categories are made, recognised, and inhabited through situated comparisons. In personalised medicine, category-making is enabled if not dependent on increasingly intensive computation and so the practices seem far removed from mundane processes of interaction. Yet, we emphasise connections with everyday practices, in which people categorise themselves and others routinely according to what they like and resemble.
Cancer care; Medical humanities; social anthropology; poetry.
Day, S., Gleason, K., Lury, C., Sherlock, D., Viney, W., Ward., H. ”In the Picture’: Living and Working With Cancer’. BMJ: Medical Humanities. 2022.