Chapman professors Lisa Sparks and Anna Leahy

Let’s Talk About Cancer A rich mix of data, personal insights and poetry helps caregivers navigate critical conversations.

Cancer begins heaven knows when. But for most people it announces itself with a jolt of a diagnosis, followed by various treatments, sidelined plans, lousy side effects, medical bills, leaves of absence, recovery and hope for remission.

It’s a lot for patients, family members and health practitioners to discuss, whichever direction the wild ride takes. And there’s no single good way to start that conversation, say two Chapman University professors. So they’ve written a guide, weaving evidence-based research on health communication with stories and poetry from writers who’ve sat through their own uncomfortable moments in doctors’ offices.

The result is “Conversing with Cancer: How to Ask Questions, Find and Share Information, and Make the Best Decisions” by Lisa Sparks, Ph.D., professor and dean of the Chapman School of Communication, and Anna Leahy, Ph.D., professor and director of the MFA in Creative Writing program. Their 12 themed chapters address a range of communication issues, from Internet overload to the demands of ongoing caregiving. A poem opens each chapter.

“I really hope it gets in the hands of patients and families who need it and that it gets beyond the classroom,” Sparks says.

Sparks’ considerable research and published writing on cancer communication inform several chapters. For example, in a section on culture and cancer care, she describes study findings indicating that less-educated patients were not accessing online cancer information.

Her work in this area reaches back to 2002, when she was awarded a fellowship at the National Cancer Institute, making her the first Cancer Communication Fellow within the National Institutes of Health. Just a few years prior, her father had died of lung cancer.

“So I knew that at some point I was going to move to the cancer context when I was emotionally ready,” she says.

Likewise, Leahy brought personal experiences to the book, published as part of the Language as Social Action series from Peter Lang. Both her parents died of cancer, and her father’s initial diagnosis hit when she was a teenager.

And the use of verse?

“Poetry is an area of language that we turn to when we struggle to communicate what we’re thinking or feeling,” Leahy says. “And a cancer diagnosis, or going through treatment, that’s an experience for which we don’t have adequate language. So I think poetry is a natural place for us to turn when we’re figuring out how to communicate about cancer.”

Top photo: “Conversing with Cancer” by Lisa Sparks, left, and Anna Leahy addresses a range of cancer communication issues. Photo by Livi Dom ’20

Dawn Bonker

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