Film analyzes importance of family support during cancer


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Photo by Tianfang Yu |

Students watch “When Cancer Calls,” a theatrical stage production screened yesterday at 6 p.m. at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey.


In 1988, a son discovered his mother was diagnosed with cancer while speaking to his father on the phone. He accidentally recorded the conversation, and rather than deleting it, he proceeded to record every phone conversation with her from diagnosis up until her death in 1989.

The project lasted for 13 months and totaled 61 phone calls, each providing a naturally occurring record of how a family communicates in times of tragedy. The family donated the cassettes to Wayne Beach, a professor in the School of Communication at San Diego State University.

Beach published “A Natural History of Family Cancer: Interactional Resources for Managing Illness” with the materials the family had provided. The book was then adapted to the theatrical stage production, “When Cancer Calls,” screened yesterday evening at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

These recordings are said to be the first natural history of a family talking about cancer, Beach said at the screening. It analyzed how communication between family members and friends can provide a source of support for those suffering from illness.

The event was sponsored by the Department of Communication, the School of Communication and Information and the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research.

Lisa Mikesell, assistant professor in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, said most people focus on studying doctor-patient communication rather than communication between family members, so this event portrayed a different perspective.

The family made two requests to Beach, the executive producer of the film, to keep their identities private and to wait several years before analyzing the recordings, Beach said in the film. In the film, Beach’s character confessed the cassettes gathered dust for eight years.

Beach’s own mother was diagnosed with cancer and died four months later, bringing back the memory of the recordings.

“I more fully realized that here I was, a son talking to his mother,” Beach’s character said. “So this is what the grad student must have been going through.”

After the screening, a panel took place in which Beach was asked whether the use of the apparent script distracted from the film.

“Every time an audience member sees [the actors] look down at the book, it reminds them that it is verbatim,” Beach said. “The actors improvised forms of laughter and inflection, but their language was concrete.”

Although the film screening was specifically geared toward telephone conversations about cancer, the research gathered may contribute to other fields as well. As the recordings were taken from 1988 to 1989, the technology was much more limited than it is today.

This particular family’s journey may serve as a strong empirical foundation for studying communication and Beach said extensions can be made based on contemporary developments. One extension may be to online communities as it is a contemporary form of communication.

The event became centered on family communication and emotional references. The differences between the ages of the recordings and modern day were taken into account.

Jenny Mandelbaum, professor in the School of Communication and Information, said in 2014, it is common for people to say, “I love you.”

“I think in the 1980s, it was a less common thing,” she said.

The communication between the family members during times of tragedy was shown to be positive, as there were few arguments within the dialogue, she said.

“Living is more important than dying and families ... well, families endure forever,” Beach said.


Sarbjot Kaur Dhillon

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