Communication empowers cancer patients

U. TEXAS-AUSTIN (US) — Cancer patients get a sense of control in an otherwise seemingly helpless situation when they are able to control how and when loved ones learn of their medical condition.

Communication is an important factor in coping with cancer in that it enables people to exert control during a stressful and turbulent time. But it can be a two-edged sword.

Despite best efforts to structure and control that communication, cancer patients can’t predict or control other people’s reactions.


The research “suggests that the very act of taking steps to be protective when communicating about cancer may benefit people because doing so empowers them during a time characterized by so much helplessness,” says Erin Donovan-Kicken, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

For the study, published in the Journal of  Applied Communication Research, Donovan-Kicken and colleagues interviewed cancer survivors about strategies they used in managing information about their illness, how they approached conversations about their cancer with various audiences, challenges they faced, and advice they received or recommendations they would make regarding communication around cancer.

Participants also were asked to evaluate existing patient literature on how to talk to family and friends about a cancer diagnosis and recommended it be refined to emphasize what is meaningful about communication from patients’ perspectives, including suggestions on how to manage—and withhold—cancer communication and establish conditions that allow patients to experience their cancer in a way that suits their sensibilities.

Research participants expressed benefits from telling well-meaning family and friends to give them the space to feel ill or fall apart in private, to focus on themselves without needing to support others and to avoid people who were sad or overly solicitous.

But control only can go so far, Donovan-Kicken says.

“As hard as one tries to manage their cancer communication, they cannot control the flow of information or predict other people’s reaction, which ultimately places limits on survivors’ control.”

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