Marked bodies and selves: A literary-semiotic perspective on breast cancer and identity


  • Nina Henriksen University of Southern Denmark
  • Helle Ploug Hansen University of Southern Denmark



breast cancer, narrative, identity, breast reconstruction, phenomenology, literary-semiotic analysis


A diagnosis of breast cancer is not just life-threatening but often also disfiguring. Breast cancer research has pointedly focused on the connection between bodily loss and loss of self. We will examine the narratives of two Danish women who have been treated for breast cancer and are dealing with the consequences of their treatment. Drawing upon theories of phenomenology and literary-semiotics we demonstrate how the women are negotiating their identities. In narratives of breast cancer bodily practices play a prominent role in helping or hindering the re-construction of identity. We will focus on breast reconstruction as a bodily practice and seek to understand how and why breast cancer survivors either accept or reject the possibility of reconstructing their identity through breast reconstruction. We suggest that the literary semiotic concept of marking can lead to a broader understanding of the connection between illness, body and identity. Breast reconstruction and the refusal of breast reconstruction can be viewed as part of a semiotic monitoring and marking of the body that can take place in the aftermath of treatment for breast cancer.

Author Biographies

Nina Henriksen, University of Southern Denmark

Nina Henriksen is a PhD-student and holds an MA (mag. art.) in Comparative Literature. She has done research within the field of literary theory. Her MA thesis was concerned with the theoretical discussion and development of the concept of a verbal image. Currently she is researching illness narratives and in her PhD-project specifically focusing on Danish cancer narratives.

Helle Ploug Hansen, University of Southern Denmark

Helle Ploug Hansen, PhD and MA(mag.scient.), is Professor in Anthropology. She has conducted several ethnographic fieldworks in Denmark within the field of psycho-social oncology. She is author of several books and articles. Her last anthropological research is about women, cancer and rehabilitation. Scientifically she works with theories of medical anthropology, theories of communication, narrativity and governmentality. She is involved in Health Technology Assessments in relation to patients’ and citizens’ issues and qualitative research.



How to Cite

Henriksen, N., & Hansen, H. P. (2010). Marked bodies and selves: A literary-semiotic perspective on breast cancer and identity. Communication and Medicine, 6(2), 143–152.