Cancer rehabilitation and family-focused preventive intervention: Un abrazo para la familia – A talk at SDHI by Prof. Catherine Marshall

Yesterday, I made a good decision. I went to hear a talk given by Catherine Marshall. Why was it a good decision? I will explain.

Because although as part of our professional role, we go to many seminars and talks, it’s not always that we leave the room inspired by the speaker and the work that s/he is doing with her colleagues. I must also say that I always have a soft spot for speakers who start their talk by acknowledging their colleagues for the work that they are presenting. And certainly Catherine Marshall was doing it sincerely which was a good start in my book!

So, you may be wondering ‘that’s it? She acknowledged her colleagues and that’s why you feel you made a good decision?!’. No, there’s more.

I find it very rare that a speaker who is a scientist/researcher is able to link their own life story in their work and is also willing to share it with the audience in a manner that is respectful and meaningful. I have to admit that I was not familiar with Catherine Marshall’s work on disability and rehabilitation before yesterday. After a long career focusing on rehabilitation issues, working with underserved and indigenous populations in the USA and Australia, Catherine Marshall made the decision to train on a different area: Cancer. And she made that choice because of a personal reason – her father was diagnosed with cancer and there were many battles along the way from lack of insurance to figuring out what’s the best treatment for her father that made the process of caring for her father tremendously hard. I guess it’s harder for us to imagine not having a national health care system we can rely on at hard times like this. This personal insight made Catherine Marshall acutely aware of the needs of families being affected by the cancer experience and their needs. And that was the start of a new research theme that also included cancer.

Now, the choices to retrain in a different area at a senior stage in one’s career are limited. I was not aware of it but she applied for National Cancer Institute’s Ruth L. Kirschstein national research service award for senior fellows which are available to senior scientists wishing to make changes to their research careers. Catherine Marshall got this award in 2007.

As a result of this award, Catherine Marshall was able to combine what she already knew in the areas of rehabilitation and working with underserved and indigenous populations in an area she knew little and there comes the term ‘cancer rehabilitation’. She devised and implemented a programme called Un Abrazo para La Familia which can be translated from Spanish as ‘a hug for the family’. This free service aimed to give low-income family members or friends of the person with a cancer diagnosis (co-survivors) socio-economic support in coping with cancer. It comprises of 3, one-hour session delivered by community health workers (promoters). The findings showed that there was a significant increase in cancer knowledge and self-efficacy.

This is, I think, the beginning of a very exciting research programme. Cancer is becoming a chronic illness and we know in many ways that cancer patient’s experience is lived through their family members and friends. Their distress can at times exceed the patient’s in an interesting way (as we see that in the area of fears of cancer recurrence). I believe that Catherine Marshall’s research fills in an important gap in the way we treat caregivers (co-survivors in Marshall’s term) and their needs. So, yes I feel inspired that research can have a real, applied meaning that can go a long way in helping people in underserved communities.

And I learnt about a new research technique: auto-ethnography! That sounds very interesting to me and I will certainly check it out.

If you’re now intrigued by the talk, you can always watch it here: And thanks to our host, Dr. Thilo Kroll and Social Dimensions of Health Institute for organising it!

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