Communication Gives Cancer Patients Control

Facing a cancer diagnosis can evoke feelings of helplessness during a traumatic time.

How a person chooses to talk about it – or not talk about it – can help give them a sense of control, according to researchers at The University of Texas at Austin.

In interviews with cancer survivors, researchers set out to learn how people coping with cancer want to talk about their illness. They found that communication can help but “cancer patients cannot always predict or control other people’s reaction,” according to a news release from The University of Texas at Austin.

“Our study 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,” said Erin Donovan-Kicken, assistant professor of communication studies.

The findings are worthwhile, researchers noted, for oncologists and patient advocates who counsel patients. Instead of asking patients “Are you opening up to people?” they can ask: “Do you have people you can talk to if you want to open up?”

Cancer survivors told the researchers that it helped to tell well-meaning relatives and friends that they need their space or that they wanted to be sad privately. It was also important to communicate when they wanted to just focus on themselves or to avoid people who were sad, researchers said.

“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,” said Erin Donovan-Kicken, who has also studied topic avoidance among breast cancer survivors.

The study appeared in the August issue of the Journal of Applied Communication Research.

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