It's undeniable: a cancer diagnosis rocks the patient's family to its core. But what role does communication within the family play?
Research by Wayne Beach, Ph.D., a professor of communication at San Diego State University, has proven that how a family communicates from diagnosis through cancer treatment plays a critical role in the patient's overall well-being and health.
In recognition of October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke with Dr. Beach about his 10 years of research on communication and cancer, and we gathered his tips for communicating with a cancer patient.
"How family members communicate when coping (with a diagnosis) is important," Beach says. Patients have reported feeling empowered when communication is comprehensive and constant in their home and medical surroundings, Beach explains.
The American Cancer Society estimates three of four U.S. families have at least one member who is a cancer survivor, confirming the widespread impact and value of Beach's research.
He and his team of researchers have and continue to study phone and face-to-face interactions between cancer patients and their families, and interactions between patients and healthcare professionals.
"If you hear someone has been diagnosed with cancer, our natural inclination tends to be to think of it as a death sentence," he says.
This is why initial findings were surprising to Beach. Much of the communication observed between family members and cancer patients "focused on life, rather than death," he says. "It is so much more about hope than despair. I really didn't expect that going in."
"So we're looking at how good and bad news relating to cancer gets delivered and responded to," he adds.
A Focus on Life, Hope
Through communication, we share our fears and uncertainties with one another, but also our hope and optimism, which makes all the difference in a patient's well-being and outlook on life and their disease, Beach explains.
Sharing stories and memories, in particular, serve as effective coping mechanisms for both patient and supporter.
Beach's studies, initially funded by the American Cancer Society, took on a personal meaning when his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1998. She died just four months later.
Now, Beach is working alongside collaborators at UC San Diego, San Diego State University and the National Health Institute to spread the word about communication and its critical role in a cancer patient's diagnosis, management and well-being.
He has also developed, "When Cancer Calls…," a theatrical production based on his book "A Natural History of Family Cancer," which follows one family's telephone conversations following a member's cancer diagnosis.
"Cancer patients do cope and heal better depending on their communication within their families. Without this proper communication, these patients don't heal as well or as long," he says. "Having a dysfunctional environment around you is not good, it's stressful."
The Power of Positivity
When someone you know is battling cancer, Do:
- Offer encouraging and positive words
- Communicate frequently
- Express your emotions
- Actively listen to the patient's concerns and thoughts
- Communicate frequently; cancer patients need to be able and encouraged to vent and share their concerns, feats and fears.
- Stay silent
- Ignore the diagnosis and avoid speaking about anything cancer-related
- Focus on or introduce negativity