Student Focuses Research on Psychology of Cancer

Author: Joanna Basile

Claire Conley

Claire Conley, a junior psychology major in the Glynn Family Honors Program at Notre Dame, spent last summer conducting research on how cancer patients cope with their diagnoses and treatments. Now, she is working to publish those findings.

“I’m in the editing process of an article my colleagues and I hope to submit to a psychological journal for publication early this year,” says Conley, whose research was funded by an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program grant from Notre Dame’s Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts.

Coping With Cancer

Conley’s project focuses on a recently revised questionnaire used by psychologists to assess patients’ personal coping styles and determine how each individual can best be guided through the stress of having cancer. Because the assessment tool is relatively new, not much is yet known about the way factors such as type of diagnosis, gender, age, and socioeconomic background impact a patient’s responses. Researching these variables can help doctors continue to calibrate the test, leading to ever more accurate measurements of patients’ coping skills.

Over the summer, Conley worked with Oxana Palesh, an assistant professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), to conduct a statistical analysis of data from a clinical trial of more than 600 URMC cancer patients who had answered the new questionnaire. Conley then examined relative differences in high and low scores on certain parts of the assessment to see how they relate to demographic characteristics.

At the end of the summer, she presented her initial findings to the behavioral medicine unit at Rochester’s Department of Radiation Oncology. And over the last several months, Conley has continued to work with Palesh—now an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University—to further refine the research into a paper they will submit to Psycho-Oncology, the official journal of the American Psychosocial Oncology Society.

“Completing the report has been a long and difficult task—and the writing process itself has taken more time than I thought it would,” Conley says. “However … I feel like I learned a lot about conducting clinical trials.”

Personal Connections

Throughout this research project, Conley has also relied on the support and advice of her adviser at Notre Dame, Thomas Merluzzi, a psychology professor who studies coping processes in cancer patients from the perspective of social learning theory.

Merluzzi’s guidance has helped solidify her decision to pursue additional research opportunities in health psychology, she says. “I plan to apply to a doctoral psychology program, and this experience has really shown me what working in a clinical research setting at an academic institution would be like,” Conley says. “I now feel prepared for the tasks I’ll undertake in graduate school and for conducting clinical research in the future.”

Continuing her research in this field is more than an academic ambition; Conley’s inspiration stems from her own mother’s breast cancer diagnosis when Conley was a high school senior.

“She has since made a full recovery,” she says, “but seeing her undergo the process of diagnosis and treatment, as well as learning about the disease, led me to develop an interest in the ways different individuals respond to this type of event in their lives.”

Ultimately, Conley says, she hopes to translate her findings into tangible intervention techniques that can improve the quality of life for other patients dealing with cancer.

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