It's undeniable: A cancer diagnosis rocks not just a patient but their family and friends to their core.

Research led by Wayne Beach, Ph.D., a professor of communication at San Diego State University, has shown that how a family communicates from diagnosis all the way through cancer treatment plays a critical role in a patient's overall well-being and health.

In recognition of October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke to Dr. Beach about his decade of research on communication and cancer, and gathered his best advice for communicating with someone who's been diagnosed with cancer.

"How family members communicate when coping [with a diagnosis] is important," Beach says. Patients report feeling empowered when communication is comprehensive and constant in their home and medical surroundings, he adds.

The American Cancer Society estimates that three out of four U.S. families have at least one member who is a cancer survivor, confirming the widespread impact and value of Beach's research.

He and his team of researchers continue to study phone and face-to-face interactions between cancer patients and their families, as well as interactions between patients and healthcare professionals.

"If you hear someone has been diagnosed with cancer, our natural inclination tends to be to think of it as a death sentence," he says. 

This is why initial findings were surprising to Beach. Much of the communication observed between family members and cancer patients "focused on life, rather than death," he says. "It is so much more about hope than despair. I really didn't expect that going in."

"So we're looking at how good and bad news relating to cancer gets delivered and responded to," he adds. 

Focusing on Life and Hope

Through communication, we share our fears and uncertainties with one another, but also our hope and optimism, which makes all the difference in a patient's well-being and outlook on life and their disease, Beach explains.

Sharing stories and memories, in particular, serve as effective coping mechanisms for both patient and supporter. 

Beach's studies, initially funded by the American Cancer Society, took on a personal meaning when his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1998. She died just four months later.

Now, Beach is working alongside collaborators at UC San Diego, San Diego State University and the National Institutes of Health to spread the word about communication and its critical role.

He also developed "When Cancer Calls…," a theatrical production based on his book "A Natural History of Family Cancer," which follows one family's telephone conversations following a member's cancer diagnosis.

"Cancer patients do cope and heal better depending on their communication within their families. Without this proper communication, these patients don't heal as well or as long," he says. "Having a dysfunctional environment around you is not good, it's stressful."

The Power of Positivity

When someone you know is battling cancer, Do:

  • Offer encouraging and positive words
  • Communicate frequently; cancer patients need to be able and encouraged to vent and share their concerns, feats and fears.
  • Express your emotions 
  • Actively listen to the patient's concerns and thoughts

    Do not:
  • Stay silent
  • Ignore the diagnosis and avoid speaking about anything cancer-related
  • Focus on or introduce negativity