Study to Enhance Communication Between Mothers with Breast Cancer, Children

Jean Spinelli
Oct. 25, 2000

Mothers who are told they have breast cancer often face overwhelming challenges. In addition to finding answers to questions about their health and managing their own uncertainty and fears, women who are newly diagnosed must find ways to help their children adjust to the diagnosis and changed family routines during their mother's treatments.

To help these mothers, the University of Arizona College of Nursing recently was funded as part of a $3.7 million multi-site study by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) titled "Enhancing Connections: Helping the Mother with Breast Cancer to Support Her School-Age Child."

"There is a huge need to learn the best ways of helping mothers to parent while they deal with breast cancer," says Joan Haase, one of the study investigators and associate professor in the UA College of Nursing. "The diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer takes a lot of physical and emotional energy. Mothers need help to develop ways to stay connected with their children during this stressful time. Just the physical difficulties of treatment, such as fatigue, often take a toll on the mothers. While mothers are dealing with the cancer and treatments, they need help to learn how to be psychologically available to their child, communicate effectively with them, maintain consistency in parenting, and manage their own feelings."

The goals of the Enhancing Connections program are targeted specifically to the cancer issues to strengthen the mother's parenting skills, enhance the quality of the other-child relationship, increase the mother's confidence in parenting the child and positively enhance the child's behavioral-emotional functioning.

This study will evaluate two alternative programs that are both designed to help mothers communicate with their children about the breast cancer. One program provides mothers with printed materials and a phone call from a specially trained patient educator to help the mothers use the printed materials. The other program provides five in-home visits by a specially trained patient educator who is an expert nurse clinician to teach the skills at two-week intervals.

"Both programs offer mothers with breast cancer ways of helping the children express their feelings," says Dr. Haase. "Often a diagnosis of breast cancer is like having an elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about in front of the children. But it is important to take into account how each member of the family is adjusting and coping with the cancer, including the children."

The administrative site for the Enhancing Connections study is the University of Washington in Seattle, where Frances M. Lewis is the study principal investigator. In addition to the University of Arizona and University of Washington, study sites include the City of Hope National Medical Center and Beckman Research Institute in Duarte, Calif., and the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.




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