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Communication is Critical for the Health of Breast Cancer Patients

A diagnosis of breast cancer is devastating news for a mother and daughter. Often the information can cause a strain in their communication, while at the same time they want to support each other and take on the disease together.

Breast cancer patients who know what information to share and how or when to share it with their mother or daughter may have better health outcomes than patients who hold back according to new research  from Dr. Carla L. Fisher, assistant professor of Advertising at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications and her colleagues Dr. Bianca Wolf from the University of Puget Sound in Washington, Dr. Craig Fowler from Massey University in Aukland, New Zealand, and Dr. Mollie Rose Canzona from Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina.

Strong family support is known to help breast cancer patients adapt during treatment and relationships between mothers and daughters seem to be particularly important. But undergoing cancer treatment is challenging during the best of circumstances. Many mothers worry about telling their daughters too much, leaving daughters unable to fully help and mothers with an extra psychological burden. Daughters, on the other hand, want to be supportive but also want to respect their mother’s privacy.

To explore these connections, Fisher and her colleagues surveyed 78 women who either had a diagnosis of breast cancer or had a mother or daughter with a diagnosis. They asked participants questions about how open they were in their mother-daughter relationship and their physical, relational and mental health. Then, the researchers interviewed the women individually to learn more about what they did or didn’t share while coping with breast cancer.

The survey results showed that, in general, diagnosed women who communicated more openly with their mother or daughter had better relational health and those who were more avoidant exhibited poorer physical health e.g., more pain and fatigue. From the interviews, Fisher and her colleagues discovered that women spoke differently with their mothers or daughters depending on several factors, such as the topic at hand (physical versus emotional changes), the pair’s relative ages, their role within the relationship, and the motivation for talking.

For instance, mother/daughter pairs tended to share their experience with treatment side effects and medical decisions at times to keep them in the loop and to obtain support. They also talked about prevention and risk factors, particularly with daughters whose future risk they were especially concerned about. Likewise, the participants’ reasons for avoiding conversations were complex, with many women not wanting to add stress to their mother or daughter’s life. For older diagnosed moms, privacy was also important. Collectively their findings reveal that both being open can be both helpful and unhelpful in mother/daughters’ ability to cope together.

Fisher and her colleagues argue that while communication is important for mothers and daughters dealing with breast cancer they need assistance in practicing healthy communication. Their survey findings clearly show better health effects with open communication, but their interview findings also suggest that both openness/avoidance are both healthy and unhealthy depending upon the various factors. The interview findings further show which approaches seem to work best for various ages as well as the topic at hand. Clinicians can help improve the health of their patients and reduce stress on both parties by encouraging communication that is sensitive to both mother and daughter’s needs, helping navigate potentially fraught discussions. And it starts with willing to be open with one another.

“Openness cultivates communal coping and intimacy, and it is clear that many mothers/daughters want to be included and know how their loved one is faring,” the authors note. “Being involved facilitates the diagnosed woman’s daughter/mother’s own coping.”

Fisher is currently collaborating with Director Jill Sonke, MA of the Center for Arts in Medicine, UF Health (where she is affiliate faculty) to expand her research with African American mothers and daughters using PhotoVoice – a method to capture the mother-daughter experience of breast cancer through photography. Fisher and Sonke recently received an STCC / CTSI Pilot Project Award grant to create a photo art exhibit from the study that will be hosted in the Criser Cancer Resource Center in October 2017 – breast cancer awareness month.

Dr. Carla Fisher is assistant professor of Advertising at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications

Posted: January 23, 2017
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