Research points to importance of communication in living with cancer

How does being diagnosed or living with cancer affect relationships with loved ones, friends, and healthcare professionals? (Photo Flickr Creative Commons)
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April 1, 2015 - 6:45am

NET News' Ben Bohall talks with UNL Researcher Jody Koenig Kellas about the importance of communication for families dealing with cancer. Her latest research studies the benefits and risks of hope.


NET NEWS: We’ve been taking a look at cancer- this terrible disease that we still have so much to learn about. Your area of interest lies in health communication. Communication is maybe something we don’t often immediately think about in a situation where someone is diagnosed or living with cancer.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR JODY KOENIG KELLAS: I’m glad you brought up that communication isn’t necessarily always the first thing that comes to mind. But if you think about every aspect of the cancer journey, communication is at the heart of it- during diagnosis, every single treatment, communication within the family- is central to the process of understanding and coping with cancer. It’s one of the things that we’re not always tuned into and that practitioners are not always trained to do extensively. It’s something that’s definitely important but lacks the attention that I think it needs

Jodi Koenig Kellas is an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She's currently in the process of conducting the study (With Alexis Waters and Kathy Castle) entitled: "Stories of hope: Investigating the benefits and risks of hope for families in the context of cancer. (Photo courtesy of UNL)

NET NEWS: Tell us a bit then about what your team is working on right now to remedy at least a part of that issue.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR JODY KOENIG KELLAS: We became interested in cancer recently both through a series of professional and personal circumstances. We began doing a study which interviewed family caregivers, medical practitioners- including palliative providers and oncologists- about the ways in which they define and communicate about hope in the context of cancer, since hope is so central to the cancer experience. We also asked them about communicational and relational challenges. All of this was leading up to an intervention that we’re planning, which is a family storytelling intervention. One that’s meant to help cancer patients, family caregivers, oncology or palliative providers, understand each others perspective by coming together through storytelling or narrative.   

NET NEWS: You mention the emphasis being on hope, which is something that comes up a lot in this documentary, “Cancer: The Emperor of all Maladies.” How much does hope play a role in the well-being of cancer patients?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR JODY KOENIG KELLAS: What most of the research is telling us is that people who report feeling satisfied in their families and feeling the most functional in terms of their family communication when it comes to communicating about cancer are those that feel socially supported by their family members and who feel that family members affirm and confirm their experiences. It’s really focusing on this ability to be open, supportive, affirming, and understanding what the other person is going through. The detrimental part (most of the research shows) is when people engage in topic avoidance, which happens a lot because people feel they especially need to protect each others feelings. Patients are worried about talking about their cancer or aspects of it because they’re afraid they’ll worry their family members who are supporting them. Family caregivers are worried about talking about things to the patient because they’re worried they’ll burden them. So they’ll engage in what’s called “protective buffering,” which is keeping something from the other person in hopes of protecting their feelings. That’s consistently found to not be a successful strategy. Sort of intuitive to what you’d think, when people avoid conversations about it or try to protect one another, they are less satisfied and seem to cope less well than people who are able to find ways to support one other and engage open conversations about cancer.

NET NEWS: I want to close our conversation by asking what you hope this type of research can ultimately contribute to this ongoing problem.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR JODY KOENIG KELLAS: Part of what our initial findings are telling us is that people are incredibly hopeful and incredibly well-intentioned. But it’s fascinating to see the different ways in which they see the cancer journey and how family caregivers, oncologists, and palliative providers all see hope and the communication of hope from different lenses. Our hope is by having them engage in narrative communication, they’ll be able to come together and see one anothers perspective.


NET is producing an hour-long special, Living With Cancer in Nebraska, that will premiere at 7 p.m. (CT) Friday, April 3, on NET1.  For more information visit our special website dedicated to this cancer project.

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