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Tough decisions: Treatment options for breast cancer patients

CMU researcher Kirsten Weber defines difficult decision-making process


One in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, according to Faced with a diagnosis and the range of emotions that follow, patients often struggle with the medical options presented to them and how to make a decision about their course of treatment.

Family members and friends also quite often do not think about the treatment decision-making process that the patient has to go through.

Kirsten Weber, Central Michigan University assistant professor of communication and dramatic arts, is working to help cancer patients, caregivers and practitioners better understand how and why people make the treatment decisions they do.

“Knowing the different decision-making styles can be a powerful tool for helping breast cancer patients who may be faced with treatment decisions of their own,” Weber said.

Weber interviewed cancer victims on how personal relationships shape the treatment decisions a person diagnosed with breast cancer makes.

“I was inspired by so many of the women I interviewed as part of my research and humbled by their stories,” Weber said. “My ultimate goal of this research is to enhance the quality of cancer patients’ lives by making people aware that not everyone goes about deciding their course of treatment in the same way, and that’s okay.”

Gina Frankhart's battle with breast cancer underscores the tough decisions women face.

“Breast cancer, unfortunately, runs in the family,” Frankhart said. “So my mother and sister knew to pitch in right away and help with my daily routine by cooking dinner and cleaning the house. Their assistance allowed me to take the necessary time I needed to recuperate from my mastectomy, chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery.”

Weber’s research identified five decision-making styles including:

  • Medical-expert: Decisions are driven by the opinion of one or multiple doctors and/or the information the patient receives from her doctor.
  • Self-efficacy: Women weigh options and control the decision process by themselves.
  • Relationship-embedded: Decisions are based upon the primary concern of extending one's life to spend time with loved ones.
  • Inhibition: Decisions are focused on wanting to avoid adverse experiences, including pain and death. 
  • Constellation-of-information: Decisions include several influences of equal importance.

When Gina had to initially decide about surgery and chemotherapy options for her treatment, she reached out beyond the strong family support system — including her daughter Katie, a CMU senior and integrative public relations major — that surrounded her.

“I relied on the advice of my medical team and also had to factor in the expense of treatment options that my insurance would financially cover,” Frankhart said. “It wasn’t easy.”

Weber plans to continue her research by broadening the study to include all types of cancer and further investigate how diagnosed patients make treatment decisions. ​

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