Designing Cancer Treatment Centers: The Lack of Research

Presented by: Sarah Michalec, Joan Dickinson

“I’m working on my crossword puzzle hoping this will keep my mind off the fact that I have cancer. I can hear the woman next to me telling other patients she has 2 to 5 years to live. The gentleman on my right is discussing his constipation with the nurse. I watch the drip from the chemotherapy bag and cannot believe this is happening to me (52-year old breast cancer survivor).” Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Approximately 1 ½ million people are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in 2015, and the lifetime risk of developing cancer is 1 in 2 for men and 1 in 3 for women (Cancer Facts and Figures, 2015). The World Health Organization estimates that the number of new cancer cases will rise by 70% over the next two decades (Cancer Facts and Figures, 2015). There is no doubt that cancer is an emotional and often traumatic experience. In Colleen Dolan Fullbright’s (2015) guide How to Help Your Friend with Cancer, she says, “Few generalities can be made about the cancer experience, except that – for most people – it is the scariest time of their lives. It might be the loneliest time, too (p. ix).” Despite these trends, little research has been conducted that evaluates the effectiveness of the cancer treatment environment. To illustrate, some centers advocate open-treatment areas that administer chemotherapy to allow for visual access by nurses and interaction among patients. While comradely among patients is admirable, private conversations, individuals who are sick or who have been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer are clearly visible which may induce stress. On the other hand, private treatment areas could lead to isolation. Theodorson, Thomas, and Vaux (2014) state the importance of building a sense of community in cancer care, but no one has examined which is the better alternative through research. As noted by Mullaney, Pettersson, Nyholm, and Stolterman (2012), anxiety is a well-documented emotion among individuals diagnosed with cancer and patient perceptions about treatment areas can shape their care experience. Furthermore, medical technologies designed to improve patient health can sometimes result in negative and even traumatic experiences causing a great deal of anxiety (Mullaney et al., 2012). Emotional distress and anxiety due to medical procedures and treatments are particularly common in oncology units where patients can feel disempowered and suffer emotionally, as well as physically (Mullaney et al., 2012). Boyd, McKernon, Mullin, and Old (2012) used journey mapping, experience-based surveys and co-design workshops to examine patient contacts, emotions, and touch points as they visited The Breast Service Center. Results revealed a great amount of anxiety occurred while waiting, especially if staff did not provide ongoing information, as well as during procedures (mammography and biopsy) and clinic appointments (Boyd et al., 2012). Suggestions by patients included patient information leaflets, a newly designed mammography gown, and journey map explaining the sequencing of treatments; yet, none involved changes to the physical environment. The purpose of this poster session is to present design ideas for cancer treatment facilities that will be critiqued based on the current literature albeit lacking. A case consisting of a 52-year old, female breast-cancer survivor will provide additional insight and critique of the design ideas, and future research questions will be generated. A cancer diagnosis is scary and unfortunately there are a number of existing oncology environments that could be exacerbating this fear. Work needs to be done to identify and eliminate anxiety in these environments and to find successful design solutions.


  • Cancer Facts and Figures. (2015). Retrieved from
  • Boyd, H., McKernon, S., Mullin, B. & Old, A. (2012, June 29). Improving healthcare through the use of co-design. The New Zealand Medical Journal, 125(1357), 76-86.
  • Fullbright, C. D. (2015). How to help your friend with cancer. American Cancer Society: Atlanta, GA.
  • Mullaney, T., Pettersson, H., Nyholm, T., & Stolterman, E. (2012). Thinking beyond the cure: A case for human-centered design in cancer care. International Journal of Design, 6(3), 27-39.
  • Theodorson, J., Thomas, S., & Vaux, D. (2014). A third place plus for cancer patients: Social support in a restorative environment + complementary healing techniques. Proceedings from the Annual Interior Design Educators Conference, New Orleans, LA. Retrieved from
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