Send to

Choose Destination
Int J Nurs Stud. 2015 Jan;52(1):207-15. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2014.10.008. Epub 2014 Oct 25.

Contrasting stories of life-threatening illness: a narrative inquiry.

Author information

School of Nursing, Box 1700 STN CSC, Victoria, BC V8W2Y2, Canada. Electronic address:
Faculty of Nursing, University of Alberta, Canada.
School of Nursing, Box 1700 STN CSC, Victoria, BC V8W2Y2, Canada; School of Nursing, University of Victoria, Canada.
Island Health Region Victoria, Canada.
Schools of Nursing and Social Work, University of Victoria, Canada.



Advances in science and technology have resulted in longer lives for people with life-threatening illnesses. However, little research compares the stories of people with different life-threatening illnesses.


The objectives of this study were to explore and contrast how people story and re-story life-threatening illness specifically cancer, chronic kidney disease (CKD) and HIV.


Narrative inquiry within a social constructionist perspective was used.


A total of 113 in-depth interviews were conducted with 32 participants over a period of three years.


Study participants included 32 people: 10 with cancer, 14 with CKD and 8 with HIV/AIDS. Participants varied in age (37-83 years old, mean=61.2 years), gender (17 men and 14 women), location (urban and rural), time post-diagnosis (median=8 years), intensity or invasiveness of treatment, and prognosis (continuous treatment, remission, cure, palliative).


Participants described living with a life-threatening illness as a delicate balance. They focused on living their lives yet were fully and acutely aware of their own mortality. There was an undercurrent of sustained uncertainty that permeated their lives. Stories of life-threatening illness differed across the three illness groups and shifted over time as disease trajectories changed. Each disease brought specific challenges. With cancer, turning points and uncertainty were prominent. With CKD, a stealthy beginning to life-extending treatment through dialysis or transplant was evident, and with HIV, a shift from a perceived death sentence to a focus on hope and living was notable.


Findings revealed that trajectories of illness for participants living with cancer, CKD and HIV are complex and differ markedly across the groups. Narratives shifted across all of the illness groups as participants navigated and re-storied the terrains of their life-threatening illness. Findings illuminated the need for health care providers to focus on person specific and contextualized aspects of the illness experience.


Cancer; Chronic illness; Chronic kidney disease; HIV; Illness experiences; Life-threatening illness; Narrative inquiry

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for Elsevier Science
Loading ...
Support Center