Professional Studies and Fine Arts

Professional Studies and Fine Arts

Play Tells One Family’s Cancer Story, But Has Lessons for All

Play Tells One Family’s Cancer Story, <br/>But Has Lessons for All

Based on research by SDSU Professor Wayne Beach, “When Cancer Calls” highlights the importance of communication for cancer patients.

The cancer journey often begins with a single devastating phone call. The calls rapidly multiply into dozens of conversations sharing information, support, and prognosis.

The real words of a real family battling cancer are at the heart of “When Cancer Calls,” a theatrical performance addressing the difficulties people face when communicating about cancer. The play, based on the research of San Diego State University communication professor Wayne Beach combines social science research and the arts. It provides a lesson in the complex and often misunderstood communication challenges arising from cancer diagnosis, treatment and prognosis.

“This project is unique in that researchers have never before had access to actual family conversations about cancer, from diagnosis through the death of a loved one,” said Beach. “The research, book and now the play provide valuable insights into how a real family navigates changing cancer circumstances.”

From book to play

The play is an adaptation of Beach’s book A Natural History of Family Cancer: Interactional Resources for Managing Illness, which has received two awards from the National Communication Association. Written in 2009, the book is the result of nearly ten years of research and analysis of 61 phone conversations between a woman diagnosed with cancer and her family.

The play integrates theatrical performance and talk back sessions to help to disseminate and popularize the findings of basic communication research. It serves to share successful communication techniques for families dealing with a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Funded by the National Cancer Institute, “When Cancer Calls” breaks new ground as a theatrical genre that relies on the intimacy and authenticity of naturally occurring conversations. No such materials have been previously artistically adapted.

From play to communication techniques

In 2013, the play was made available on DVD and screened for cancer patients, survivors, and family members during a survey on communication techniques about and during cancer journeys. Researchers conducted pre- and post-viewing questionnaires and another follow-up interview after 30 days to examine strategies for educational communication programs for cancer centers, medical groups, and health professionals.

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