Q: Can you tell us about your research with communication and cancer?
A: My research focuses on helping families who are coping with cancer or facing cancer risk learn to communicate in ways that are healthy. Communication can be challenging and I try to identify healthy communication families can engage in when coping, caregiving, discussing risk or adopting risk-reducing habits, navigating challenging conversations or topics, as well as for talking with healthcare professionals. It’s also important that families know that our preferences for communicating can be different given our age, developmental maturity, or the generation we grew up in. So what works for me, for instance, might not be perceived as very helpful to my mother or my grandmother. I focus a lot on mothers, daughters, and breast cancer, including those with hereditary breast or ovarian cancer (HBOC) and wrote the first evidence-based book on mothers, daughters, and breast cancer. I provide mothers and daughters with communication strategies for coping together and also tailor this based on where they are in the lifespan (young adulthood, midlife, later adulthood).
Q: How do you think communication can improve to positively impact cancer interventions?
A: It’s important for scientists to partner with online communities to ensure families and patients have access to credible information in a format that speaks to them and clinicians have online resources they trust that they can direct their patients and family members to. In my Family · Health · Lifespan Communication Lab we teamed with “mommy bloggers” and developed a successful social media intervention to get environmental breast cancer risk information to mothers with daughters and motivate them to adopt risk-reducing lifestyle changes together.
To read more about this study, see Taking the War on Cancer to the Web.
Q: Why did you choose interpersonal health communication as your life’s work?
A: The psychosocial side of cancer care can be as critical to well-being as the biomedical side. At the root of health is how we are communicating in our relational lives. Yet, clinicians and researchers have acknowledged that families often enter the world of cancer without what’s been called a “psychosocial map” — understanding the emotional and social side of coping with cancer as a family. By providing a “psychosocial map,” you help families understand how cancer affects them emotionally or mentally, how it’s a disease that affects everyone in the family as well as their family dynamics, so that you can help them communicate in ways that promote family resilience. I hope to make cancer care more family-centered and contribute to that “psychosocial map” to enhance their disease coping.
Q: What current or upcoming projects are you working on?
A: I’m working with my colleague Carma Bylund, Ph.D., and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) on creating an intervention for adult child caregivers of parents diagnosed with a blood cancer on developing family communication skills at home and in the clinical setting. We are also developing an intervention for young-adult caregiving daughters of mothers diagnosed with breast cancer to enhance mother-daughter communication skills and communication skill when talking with healthcare providers. I’m also working with Marleah Dean Kruzel, Ph.D. (University of South Florida), Lisa Brown, GCG, and Karen Daily, D.O., on developing a decision-making tool for “previvors” (women who test positive for the BRCA1/2 genetic mutation) to help them manage chronic, distressful uncertainty about their HBOC risk and support their risk-reducing medical decisions.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your work?
A: Narratives are a valuable tool to illustrate the importance of communication to our health and to teach us how to communicate in healthy ways. It is so rewarding when patients and family members are willing to be interviewed about their experiences. I feel privileged that they share their stories with me in order to help other families facing cancer, and it is very rewarding for me to elevate their voice in research as well as healthcare practice.
Q: What challenges do you face in this area of research?
A: I love working with community partners. Recruitment for studies can be very challenging. They are wonderful at connecting me with patients and families to recruit but also in ensuring that their needs are prioritized in research. Community groups are on the ground helping patients and their families every day. They see the need for more family-centered care — that “psychosocial map” — which takes a backseat to the biomedical side of care (another challenge). But when you work with community partners, your work is driven by the community and can reach those that can benefit from it.