Year of Publication

2014

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

College

Communication and Information

Department

Communication

First Advisor

Dr. Allison M. Scott

Second Advisor

Dr. Elisia L. Cohen

Abstract

A cancer diagnosis often causes biographical disruption in the lives of young adult (i.e., 18-39; YA) survivors and their close social network members (i.e., familial, plutonic, or romantic relational partners with whom the survivor has a salient relationship; SNM). In order to integrate their illness into their lives, normatively regain balance and equilibrium, and achieve a “new normal” following a cancer diagnosis, YA survivors and their close SNMs must work to reconstruct their biographies by engaging in tangible interpersonal communication processes often used to initiate and maintain relationships. However, YA cancer survivors report facing social struggles due to the biographical disruption of their illness across the trajectory of diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship.

To learn more about their unique social experience of cancer, I conducted private, open-ended narrative interviews with 20 YA survivor-close SNM dyads, 1 YA survivor-SNM close triad, and 10 individual YA survivors (N = 51). I used thematic narrative analysis to determine how and why YA cancer survivors and their close SNMs communicate social support messages with romantic partners, family, friends, peers, and one another. By examining the narratives of YA survivors, their close SNMs, and the dyad itself, this dissertation explores the interpersonal communication processes used to initiate and maintain relationships across the illness trajectory by focusing on the barriers and facilitators these individuals experience in the communication of social support.

Through their individual narrative accounts, YA survivors explained why and how they perceived various support attempts from others to be positive or negative, and their close SNMs detailed their attempts to navigate the YA’s larger support network and assume the duties inherent in their newly-adopted “top supporter” role. In addition, reports from YAs and their SNMs revealed that they often engaged in mutual pretense, a unique and often unsustainable form of support that occurred between YA survivors and their close SNMs involving topic avoidance and emotional management. Implications for the advancement of interpersonal communication theory and for practical intervention targeting YA patients and survivors, their close SNMs, and medical practitioners are also discussed.

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