Poor Communication in Cancer Care

Patient Perspectives on What It Is and What to Do About It

Sally Thorne, PhD, RN, FAAN, FCAHS; John L. Oliffe, PhD, RN; Kelli I. Stajduhar, PhD, RN; Valerie Oglov, BSW, MA; Charmaine Kim-Sing, MD, FRCPC; T. Gregory Hislop, MDCM, MSc


Cancer Nurs. 2013;36(6):445-453. 

In This Article


Communication is a curious and ubiquitous component of a cancer care system. Despite some common features within what constitutes either helpful or unhelpful cancer care communication from the patient perspective, there is also a wide range of variation across context, culture, and condition. A statement or expression that one patient finds particularly helpful may prove distasteful or distressing to another. Patients facing cancer are understandably vulnerable and highly attuned to the nuances of the messaging that surrounds them. Effective communication informs, supports, comforts, guides, and sustains hope; ineffective communication confuses, disorganizes, demeans, and distresses. If communication were a drug, its potential harm would be well described in our compendium of safe pharmaceutical products, and its administration would be restricted to healthcare providers with established competencies. Nevertheless, because communication is the context within which all of the human operations of our cancer care systems occur, we must take it seriously as a focus of consideration. Understanding communication within the complexity that patient perspectives offer us, we can appreciate why the available evidence will never be perfect. Thus, making inroads toward solving the challenge of cancer communication will require models of care delivery and approaches to research that are mutually informative in a process of dynamic interaction, developing and refining our knowledge while thoughtfully putting it to use.