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Monday, February 6, 2023

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Professor Wayne Beach produced a documentary that highlights the critical importance of good communication for patients with cancer. Video: Scott Hargrove for SDSU.

Good Communication Can Ease the Journey Through Cancer

A new documentary illustrates its critical importance for patients, family and health care providers.
By Padma Nagappan

“When patients have good communication, their fears are minimized, their hopes are optimized, and their uncertainties are reduced.”

Tammy Blackburn remembers exactly when she received the call from her doctor with a breast cancer diagnosis. September 1, 2017, at 4 p.m. She was in her office, preparing for a meeting.

“Sometimes I wish I didn’t have such a clear memory of the phone call because I keep replaying that in my head,” said Blackburn, director of marketing and communications for university relations and development at San Diego State University. 

But with the devastating news came the reassurance she would soon be in the care of experts. “She said my biopsy came back positive for cancer, but ‘Don’t hit the panic button, I’ve already called the best oncologist at UCSD to request that she treat you.’”

Her initial meetings with her surgeon and oncologist set the tone for how she handled the news, and how she conveyed it to close friends and family. And a documentary by an SDSU cancer communication researcher – who happens to be her former professor and mentor - reinforced the message of how lucky she was to have a medical team that communicated clearly, inspiring hope rather than fear.

Wayne Beach, who produced the film, has been with SDSU’s School of Communication for 37 years and is director of the Center for Communication, Health, & the Public Good.

Beach’s mother was diagnosed with lung cancer nearly 25 years ago, and like many with friends or family who have gone through this painful journey, he was deeply affected by it. Years earlier, a student had given him recordings of phone calls between family members after their mother received a breast cancer diagnosis. His mother’s death prompted Beach to begin studying the recordings, which led to 20 years of research focused on cancer communication.
His deep dive into how patients, families, and medical professionals interact after a cancer diagnosis and through treatment and recovery became a book, and then a play, “When Cancer Calls.” It took him to the Comprehensive Breast Health Center (CBHC) with UC San Diego Health where he videotaped vignettes of patients, and that’s when he had the idea to produce a documentary on cancer communication where he could follow patients’ arduous journeys over time. 

Positive look at painful journey

A Journey Through Breast Cancer” is a powerful documentary with insights for patients, family members and health care providers that follows Noelle Deane, and her husband, Grant, for over three years from when she receives diagnosis, through her treatment and into remission. 

It looks at how she, her husband and mother react to the news and cope; how her oncologist, surgeon, nurses, and patient navigator interact with her when they deliver good and bad news, and how they handle her concerns as she goes through chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and reconstruction of her breasts. It also offers testimony from other patients and survivors about their own journeys.

“When patients have good communication, their fears are minimized, their hopes are optimized, and their uncertainties are reduced,” Beach said. 

Conversely, when patients don’t receive good communication, “you do become more fearful, less hopeful, and you’re more vulnerable to despair,” he said.

Film offers intimate glimpses

Deane allowed Beach into her life to bear witness to highly personal moments for three years. 

He was there when she called family with the news, and in the hospital when her husband broke down upon hearing what the medical team found during surgery, and as she went through different stages of treatment and experienced highs and lows.

“I wanted to know what is it really like for people like you and me to deal with family diagnosis in real-time,” Beach said. “Until now, we had never really examined social support, fear, uncertainty, hope.”

His previous research showed that patients are often left emotionally hanging and unsatisfied with communication from their physicians. 

“A vast majority of doctors don’t have empathy for the pain experienced by cancer patients,” he said. “Viewing this film gives us instant empathy because it resonates with us.”

There are many poignant scenes in the documentary: the strong bond between Deane and her husband as they face life changing moments; how her mother overcomes her own anguish and steps up to support her; when her doctors break news of test results to her; her sassy attitude when she is having a good day; and how she is filled with uncertainty and questions after first being diagnosed.

“Should I switch to all organic foods?” she asks her oncologist, who walks her through changes she will need to make, and calms her fears. 

Hope breeds courage

Beach hopes the film will open up conversations about how families react, and how health care professionals offer their support and expertise when communicating with all those whose lives have been touched by cancer.

“We need to be conscious of how we communicate about illness, not just cancer, with our loved ones, co-workers and acquaintances,” he emphasized. “And clinicians need to be mindful of how to talk to patients.”
The doctors treating Blackburn at CBHC were also part of Deane’s team, and hence part of the documentary. Their tireless efforts towards saving lives means so much to Blackburn that she set up a nonprofit in their names, the Wallace Shatsky Blackburn Courage Through Cancer Fund, to help SDSU students affected by cancer. When she saw Beach’s documentary, it resonated deeply.

“Let’s face it. Any cancer diagnosis is going to make someone’s head spin,” she said. “You’re going to go places you don’t want to go. But this documentary can be healing. I’d certainly recommend it be shown as much as it can be, to help empower people who walk through this horrendous diagnosis.” 

The research that eventually led to the play and the documentary was funded by the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, local philanthropy, and his own research funds. Beach also received internal funding from SDSU for the play and the film. He is now trying to determine best strategies and secure funding for broader distribution of the theatrical performance and the documentary.
Beach is the principal investigator, writer and executive producer of “A Journey Through Breast Cancer,” and he worked with Timothy PowellEmmy Award winning filmmaker and professor at SDSU’s School of Theatre, Television, and Film who produced and directed it.

Beach said he and his team invested so much effort to complete this documentary because “my work on cancer has been about affirmation of life than about death. We are constantly finding ways to be hopeful than despairing.”