Mothers and Daughters and Breast Cancer

Communication professor's research helps families battle cancer together

by Amanda Schwartz

Mothers and Daughters and Breast Cancer
Dr. Carla L. Fisher

Dr. Carla L. Fisher, a professor at George Mason University, is an advocate for the importance of research in the field of family and health communication. With a plethora of experience working and doing research in the field, Dr. Fisher is a recognized authority on family, health communication related issues.

The field of health communication became particularly interesting to Fisher when she was studying family and aging and was doing a lot of research with mothers and daughters. Fisher started to notice that the topic of breast cancer would often arise in her discussions with mothers and daughters. “It would come up a lot in interviews I’d conduct with women even when we were not talking about health-related issues. I then started studying women’s experiences with breast cancer. Family communication is an important part of how women are coping and adjusting to the disease. You cannot only be concerned with the patient, it affects the whole family,” says Fisher.

Fisher is not only experienced and knowledgeable in the field but she also has a strong passion for it which is conveyed when she speaks about the topic. “I think it is really important for health care to consider that family communication is central to the health and well-being of individuals, and, as such, needs to be integrated into health care in some manner.” Fisher says that she notices that families faced with managing illness sometimes communicate in unhealthy ways, and in her research she hopes to help families cope better by helping them learn healthy communicative behavior when adjusting to disease.

Fisher has much experience working in the field of family, health communication. In 2006, Fisher initiated a research program on Mother-Daughter Communication and Breast Cancer Coping & Prevention in an effort to gain an understanding about how mothers and daughters can enhance their communication in ways that improve how they adjust to the disease and promote better health outcomes (Fisher Breast Cancer Research Program on Mother-Daughter Communication). She also works with the Mayo Clinic as well as the world renowned Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She has worked directly with various health professionals and behavioral scientists including nurses, psychologists, and genetic counselors to better understand what women’s family communication needs are. In her research she interviews women to capture their authentic stories to better understand breast cancer as a mother-daughter experience and what mothers and daughters need to do in order to learn better coping behaviors.

The most apparent finding according to Fisher, “They want to talk about it and breast cancer is very much a mother-daughter journey for many women-” Even though it is important to have open communication, sometimes it is not easy says Fisher- “I find that mothers who are diagnosed with breast cancer who have young adult or adolescent daughters at the time of the diagnosis find themselves wanting to talk but their daughters don’t always want to and will sometimes avoid those conversations.”

A research participant of Fisher’s who was a late adolescent daughter of a diagnosed mother stated, “I didn’t really know how to react to it so I kind of hid from it, blocked it out of my mind... I pulled away ’cause that’s like the only thing I knew that I could do to help myself through it because I’d be a mental wreck... It was easier for me to just pretend nothing was happening...” (Fisher Breast Cancer Research Program on Mother-Daughter Communication).

It is important to understand how to teach mothers and daughters to talk about the topic and how they can engage in these topics in an easier fashion. Some advice Fisher gives for the mothers is to “approach the matter in a calm and brief manner, let the daughter set the tone and bring it up over time and not all at once in one conversation.” For the daughters, she says that “for some young-adult daughters it can feel good to show her that you care while allowing your uncertainty about the topic to be decreased by having your questions answered to help you minimize your fears or concerns.”

Dr. Fisher has big plans for the future. She hopes to create health communication programs within psycho-oncology care to help mothers and daughters cope. She also hopes to become more involved in researching various cultures of mothers and daughters and their experiences with breast cancer.

Fisher obtained a bachelor’s degree in scientific communication at Florida Tech, a master’s degree in communication and advocacy at Arizona State University, and a Ph.D. in family health and aging communication at Penn State University. She also received a minor in gerontology. Fisher was also a National Institute on Aging (NIA) Pre-doctoral Fellow, which involved three years of interdisciplinary training in human development and aging behavior, and was invited to complete post-doctoral training in health behavior theory in the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) fifth Advanced Training Institute.