Improving communication with people diagnosed with cancer

Dr Vanette McLennan and Dee Handyside

Addressing communication challenges when a friend or family member receives a cancer diagnosis has been the focus for Griffith’s Dee Handyside and Dr Vanette McLennan.

Dee, an Online Development Officer from the university’s School of Human Services and Social Work and herself a cancer survivor, said it all started from an educational musical production she has been working on called The Silk Rags Project.

Also a singer and songwriter, Dee originally wrote the soundtrack to the production – which looks at real life experiences of having cancer – during her own cancer treatments back in 2009.  The Silk Rags Project, aims to enable community groups to collaborate on a performance which will entertain, educate, start conversations, have fun and raise funds.  The original production began in 2015 and has received some notable awards and media acclaim.

“The musical is about the underlying message regarding communication strategies when a friend receives a cancer diagnosis – from the inappropriate to the awkward,” says Dee.

Advice on how to talk to people

“Following one of the first performances of the production, we had a QandA session with the audience and it was really surprising that the thing people most wanted to know was advice on how to talk to people who have just received a cancer diagnosis.

“My script-writer and fellow cancer patient, Briohne Sykes and I realised that the audience, cast and crew needed a resource that would assist them with starting such conversations.”

As a result of this, Dee approached Dr McLennan, Senior Lecturer in Rehabilitation Counselling at Griffith, who collaborated with her on a handout to be given to all cast, crew and audience members following each performance.

“The handout is titled “Not Sure What to Say?” and gives some advice around the topic.

Meanwhile, The Silk Rags Project raises funds for the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF) and is currently being marketed to community theatre groups throughout Australia for 2019 productions.

“The one page handout has now been trialled with cancer patients and survivors as well as members of the public who have not had any experience of either the disease or assisting anyone with a diagnosis,” Dr McLennan says.

“We hope the handout will help people to feel more confident in opening up the communication channels after a loved one’s cancer diagnosis. Everyone is different and will require individualised support, and our tips aim to help people navigate this with compassion.

“Thank you to everyone involved in The Silk Rags Project for supporting the Australian Cancer Research Foundation and congratulations on all your success to date.  As we work towards our vision to outsmart cancer, it is important we continue to address all aspects of the disease, including how we communicate with each other,” says Professor Ian Brown FTSE – CEO ACRF.

Staff and students are encouraged to share The Silk Rags Project website with friends who are members of any community theatrical group within Australia.


Photo:  L-R: Dr Vanette McLennan and Dee Handyside holding the Cancer Communication tipsheet