Cancer-related communication during sessions of family therapy at the end of life

Talia I. Zaider, David W. Kissane, Elizabeth Schofield, Yuelin Li, Melissa Masterson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Objectives: A goal of family-focused therapies in oncology is to help families communicate effectively about illness and its management. Yet there has been no examination of whether and how conjoint sessions are conducive to this process. In this study, we (a) described the extent of cancer-specific communication during family sessions at the end of life; (b) identified characteristics associated with SC; and (c) determined the association between SC and longer-term family bereavement outcomes. Methods: Data were collected as part of a randomized controlled trial of Family Focused Grief Therapy (FFGT) for advanced cancer patients and their families. Demographics, depressive symptoms, and family functioning were assessed at baseline. Cancer-specific communication, perceived responsiveness to communication, and therapeutic alliances were reported after each session. At 13-month bereavement, surviving families were assessed for symptoms of depression and prolonged grief disorder (PGD). Results: Participants were 257 advanced cancer patients and family members receiving FFGT at the end of life. On average, participants perceived significantly more cancer-related communication in session (SC) than at baseline. Both therapist-family and within-family alliances were associated with SC, especially for those with more severe depressive symptoms at baseline. Long-term outcomes were moderated by perceived responsiveness to in-session communication: for those who perceived high responsiveness, SC was associated with fewer depressive and PGD symptoms in bereavement. Conclusions: Conjoint family sessions can effectively increase communication about cancer at the end of life. Clinicians should consider key contextual factors in their effort to facilitate this process: perceived responsiveness, family role, alliances with therapist, and within-family.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)373-380
Number of pages8
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • advanced cancer
  • alliance
  • caregivers
  • communication
  • family therapy
  • long-term outcomes
  • palliative care
  • therapy process

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