Doctoral student recognized for communicating support for people with cancer


Lynne MacDonald

Doctoral student Colter Ray's 2016 TEDTalk on communicating support to people with cancer has earned him the 2017 Graduate College's Knowledge Mobilization Impact Award:Leading Through Knowledge Engagement and Innovation.

Ray's research and 2016 TEDTalk on communicating support to people with cancer focuses first and foremost on what not to do. He believes that by learning to avoid the common mistakes made by supporters, friends and family members can ensure they do no harm when communicating support to loved ones with battling cancer.

Ray answered some questions about the importance of his research and his approach to supporting people with cancer.

Question: Why do you think knowing how to communicate support to people with cancer is an important area of research?

Answer: Most of us will have the experience of hearing someone we love and care about has been diagnosed with cancer. Research shows the support people give to loved ones with cancer can have an incredible effect, but unfortunately, not all attempts to say something supportive go well. My research helps people improve as supporters by looking beyond simple metrics such as the amount of support a cancer patient receives, or the patient's perception of available support. My research dives into the quality of our supportive messages to loved ones when they need support the most.

Q. Is this type of research something that others are not doing?

A: There are a few communication researchers who also study how people support each other, and sometimes their research is also in the context of a cancer diagnosis; however, I would venture to guess that I am one of the few who specifically approaches the topic from the perspective of "what not to do." I've always believed that if you're new to something, it is easier first to learn a few pitfalls to avoid and then build upon that foundation. Almost like a "do no harm" approach as a starting point.

Q: Can you explain how why you feel this opposite approach is better when learning how to communicate support to people battling cancer?

A: Personally, I think it is an issue of cognitive load. When I am under stress I have always found it is easier to focus on avoiding one or two major mistakes rather than attempting to remember a dozen minor pieces of advice. For example, if I am playing softball, my focus is first and foremost on not missing the ball. Likewise, if you have no idea what to say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, my research can point out a few things not to do as a starting point.

Q. Would your research results be something that could also be used by health professionals or in other fields?

A:  One of the potential future directions for this research is the designing of programs that can be implemented at hospitals and cancer centers. Most healthcare entities provide resources or help to cancer patients as they transition to being a patient, but far fewer programs are in place to help the loved ones of cancer patients transition into the role of supporter. Multiple of my former students have contacted me saying they used these research findings to better support people in their own lives who were facing crises unrelated to cancer. It's promising to know these findings might apply to other life situations, and exciting to consider the possibilities for future research contexts and continuing to make a difference in peoples' lives.

Q. How has ASU (HDSHC) supported your research work outside of the Graduate College award?

A: The KM award does include an honorarium that I have chosen to fund the collection and analysis of physiological data (e.g., salivary cortisol and heart rate variability) as part of my dissertation project. The Hugh Downs School is providing research funding through their summer research funding program. By braiding together the funding from the KM Award, the HDSHC, and also ASU's Graduate and Professional Student Association, I am able to include physiological analyses in my dissertation that I had always assumed could only occur once I was an assistant professor elsewhere.

Colter Ray’s 2016 TedTalk  -  "What not to do" - November 2016

The Impact awards are open to all ASU doctoral students and are conceptualized within a Knowledge Mobilization paradigm and capture the set of concepts and practices that optimize the knowledge and creativity produced in an educational setting.  Implementation can be through innovative means and media that include TED-style video recorded talks, blogs, pod casts, op-eds, infographics, art exhibits, performances, etc. 

Photo credit: Colter Ray was presented with the KM Impact Award on May 3 by the Dean of Graduate Education Alfredo Artiles