The “Communication Work” of Surviving Cancer


The “Communication Work” of Surviving Cancer

Scholar receives the 2013 Ellen A. Wartella Award for her research on how communication affects patients’ illness trajectories


What role does communication play in helping patients recover from cancer?

According to Erin Donovan, assistant professor of communication studies, the ways in which cancer patients interact with families and health care providers can lead to beneficial changes in their overall health. 

In her article published in the October 2012 edition of Health Communication, “The nature of communication work during cancer: Advancing the theory of illness trajectories,” Donovan examines how cancer survivors engage in “communication work” – the demanding and stressful interactions patients undergo in talking to others and managing information related to their medical conditions. In turn, the manner in which patients address these interactions can influence their health outcomes.

“From a series of focus group and individual interviews with cancer survivors, my co-authors and I observed that communication work is a significant aspect of survivors’ illness trajectories,” Donovan said. “And that people put a great deal of time and effort into talking about cancer with others.”

On Dec. 7, 2013, Donovan was awarded the 2013 Ellen A. Wartella Distinguished Research Award from the Moody College of Communication for her efforts exploring interpersonal and health communication. Donovan accepted her award at the Moody College of Communication fall commencement ceremony.

Each fall since 1983, faculty members from all five departments of the Moody College are sent an invitation to self-nominate a submission of published research. The Faculty Research Committee, comprised of professors from across the Moody College, chose Donovan as the winner.

Submissions are vetted on conceptual innovations, contribution to the literature in the field and the methodological, pedagogical, or policy-related advances or contributions made. Donovan received a $1,500 award and her submission was the Moody College’s nomination to the University Co-operative Society Research Excellence Award, a university-wide contest for the best research paper held in February.

Donovan, who has taught at The University of Texas at Austin since 2008, researches the ways that people communicatively cope with major life stressors with a focus on strategic management of sensitive information and difficult conversations, especially pertaining to health, illness and relationship management.

Donovan is interested in the nuances of disclosure and avoidance. She examines how conversational features and people’s perceptions of certain conversations have implications for relationship satisfaction, uncertainty management, and health. Donovan has published on topics ranging from the preceding circumstances and consequences of conversations about cancer and HIV to the confusion that patients experience while reviewing consent documents prior to medical procedures.

In her research on women coping with breast cancer, Donovan found that avoiding communication with spouses is associated with lower relationship satisfaction in general, but that it’s important to consider women’s reasons for avoiding discussion. Donovan’s data indicate that if a woman is avoiding talking about the cancer because she is trying to protect herself from the conversation, then the avoidance is especially dissatisfying. However, if a woman is avoiding the issue but feels as though she could talk if she wanted, then the avoidance is actually satisfying.

Donovan has consulted with the Texas Medical Disclosure Panel about consent documents and assisted to develop an online tool to help parents and children talk about cancer. In addition, she has won six top paper awards for her research and the Steve Duck New Scholar Faculty Award from the International Association for Relationship Research in 2010.

When Donovan was announced as the winner of the Ellen A. Wartella Distinguished Research Award, she described it as an honor.

“The faculty in the Moody College do amazing work, so to have one of my publications chosen by colleagues to represent the contributions that we are making to theory and practice was a wonderful surprise,” she said.

Donovan plans to continue teaching courses in interpersonal communication theory, managing health information, interpersonal health communication, theories of persuasion, stress and coping, and conducting research.

“I will continue to work on research projects related to disclosure, avoidance, and uncertainty,” she said. “I would also like to develop an interdisciplinary course on communication and women’s health–there is so much interesting discourse surrounding women’s bodies, health, and healthcare, which both constitutes and reveals socially constructed ideas about what it means to be a healthy female.”

For more information, contact: Lauren Phillips, 512-471-2182 or Nick Hundley, 512-471-7209