Published: November 23, 2021

Plage, S., & Olson, R. E. (2021). Surprise Reveals the Affective-Moral Economies in Cancer Illness Narratives. Qualitative Health Research, 10497323211044468.


Stefanie Plage and Rebecca E. Olson


Emotions, like joy and sorrow, feature in illness narratives, dramatizing stories of becoming: sick, well, controlled, in control. However, brief emotions, such as surprise, have received limited analytic attention in cancer illness narratives. Drawing on 20 interviews with 11 participants with diverse cancer diagnoses, along with the 455 photographs they produced for this study, we address the complex interactions between discourse, societal expectations, and perceptions in moral-affective economies. Tracing the emergence, deployment, and silencing of surprise provided an avenue to explore connections between affect, morality, advocacy, and philanthropy. We show how surprise works to deny uncertainties couched in individual risk, and situate cancer causation within the logics of anticipation, (re)producing socio-cultural etiology narratives. Attending to surprise reveals how some cancers are situated as individual responsibilities, with restricted access to compassion and collective resources. Thus, we interrogate the affective-moral economy underpinning cancer illness narratives, and surprise’s pivotal role in its analysis.