Skip to main content

Research focuses on mother-daughter communication

Image of (from left to right) Carla Fisher, Teri Pipe, Katherine Hunt
May 03, 2010

The statistics are alarming. Breast cancer incidence in women in the United States has increased from 1 in 20 in 1960 to 1 in 8 today. For women in the United States., breast cancer death rates are higher than those for any other cancer besides lung cancer. About 40,170 American women were expected to die from breast cancer in 2009. As of 2008, there were about 2.5 million women in the United States who have survived breast cancer. And a woman’s risk of breast cancer nearly doubles if she has a first-degree relative who has been diagnosed with the disease.

According to, the numbers are starting to come down, though only slightly, as treatments improve and awareness increases.

Carla L. Fisher, an assistant professor in the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences in Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, is launching a research project through the ASU-Mayo Clinic Partnership for Collaborative Research (PARCORE) designed to strengthen the communication and coping patterns of mothers facing breast cancer and their young-adult daughters. Fisher will be working in collaboration with Teri Britt Pipe, director of nursing research and innovation and an associate professor of nursing at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Phoenix, and Katherine S. Hunt, an assistant professor in the Division of Hematology/Oncology.

The new study is an extension of research Fisher conducted while working on her doctoral dissertation at Pennsylvania State University that looked at how women diagnosed in young, middle and later adulthood adapt to breast cancer through their mother-daughter communication.

“It seems everyone knows someone with breast cancer,” said Fisher, who earned her master’s in communication studies at ASU’s West campus in 2004 before receiving her doctorate from Penn State in 2008.  “The medical community is recognizing more and more that cancer is not experienced by the patient alone, but within her family. The whole family is affected by the diseases and its associated challenges. As such, the family copes together.”

Fisher has long been interested in mother-daughter communication. She was awarded her bachelor’s degree in scientific and technical communication from the Florida Institute of Technology after once considering environmental science courses at the Melbourne-based university. Her writing skills led her on the path to communication studies and her graduate thesis centered on mother-daughter communication. She joined the New College faculty at ASU in 2008 and in addition to her teaching responsibilities on the West campus, is also a member of the graduate faculty in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences on the Tempe campus. Her research interests focus on intergenerational family communication and its connection to wellness.

Fisher said that in her many studies of such communication, breast cancer became a recurring subject. Although the issue was an important one, she didn’t find much research available. In her new research, Fisher and her collaborators will be looking specifically at young-adult daughters and their diagnosed mothers and examining how their interaction affects their ability to cope.

“For women diagnosed with breast cancer, mother-daughter pairs are particularly affected for a whole host of reasons,”  Fisher said. “I found in my previous research that mothers and daughters have unique experiences that are important to explore more so. In addition to looking at their interaction, we’ll also study how they talk about health promotion behaviors such as getting mammograms or deciding to get genetic testing.”

Fisher is the coordinator of research for ASU’s Family Communication Consortium, an interdisciplinary collaboration promoting healthy family communication through research, teaching and service activities of ASU faculty and students.  She said that family communication is tied to our own health and well-being across our lifespan and is just as important to our survival as physical or biological processes.

“Our family interactions really affect how we adjust to challenging circumstances and can be instrumental in our ability to emerge resilient," Fisher said. "When coping with cancer, we know that patients who perceive they have good support interactions within their family network also have better psychological, social and physiological well-being in comparison to those who don’t.

“However, we don’t always communicate in healthy ways, since we are not born with competent communication skills and, not surprisingly then, families sometimes communicate in ways that don’t maximize their own well-being.

“By talking with mothers and daughters coping with breast cancer we can better understand their experiences, their needs, and ultimately how to communicate in healthy ways – ways that enhance both patients’ and families’ wellness.”
For Mayo’s Pipe, the collaboration has bright prospects.

“This particular project with Fisher has the potential for fairly immediate benefit,” Pipe said.  “We hope to strengthen the communication and coping patterns of mothers facing breast cancer and their young-adult daughters.  When these patterns are strengthened, there are benefits to the relationship and each of the participants; mother and daughter. 

Also, it opens the dialogue for the daughter about health promotion behaviors that may be particularly salient for her, given a family history of breast cancer.”

Fisher believes the research could lead to a more holistic approach to breast cancer care and treatment.

“Ultimately, the hope is that mothers’ and daughters’ stories from this research can be implemented into support services for other mothers and daughters,” she said. “The long-term hope is really to use the knowledge gained from this study to provide families with guidance in coping with cancer, providing them with psycho-social interventions as well as psycho-education on healthy coping.”

The research grant is part of a PARCORE seed grant program to encourage new research projects between ASU and Mayo Clinic collaborators. Since its first round in 2004, the program has awarded grants to five research teams annually.  Successful applications are judged to be well-conceived pilot studies that possess a high probability of leading to later proposals to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or to other peer review and grant funding agencies for longer term project support. Highest priority is given to new projects that enhance collaborations between ASU and Mayo Clinic.

“Collaboration is important because it helps expand our expertise by building productive and mutually beneficial relationships with ASU faculty members for the ultimate goal of providing the absolute best patient care,” said Pipe, who has worked on a wide variety of collaborations with university faculty. “As these collaborations grow, so does the depth and breadth of what we can do on behalf of our patients.

“This research benefits the community by bringing together three investigators with very different academic and clinical preparations, each of us motivated by the desire to have a positive impact on women’s health outcomes. Translating research findings into clinical practice will be more likely because we have at least three academic audiences we can reach out to: communication studies, genetic counseling and nursing.”

To better understand how a mother and her daughter(s) are affected by breast cancer diagnosis, the research team would like to talk with diagnosed mothers and their young-adult (aged 18-30) to learn more about how they managed difficult discussions related to coping and adjustment, as well as disease prevention. The team is looking for women who have been diagnosed and have received treatment within the last three years who also have young-adult daughters willing to participate. 

For more information, e-mail or call 602-543-6669.