Benefacta 2006
Distinguished Dissertation of the Year

Larra Petersen
Larra Petersen

Through her award-winning dissertation, Larra Petersen has contributed significantly to the field of counseling psychology as it relates to cancer patients. As a result of identifying potentially modifiable variables that affect the way an individual deals with a cancer diagnosis, her work emerges as a case study in hope for both cancer victims and the psychologists who counsel them.

A Model of Psychosocial Adjustment to Cancer: Additional Contributions of Agency, Communion, Unmitigated Agency, and Unmitigated Communion—honored as Ball State's Distinguished Dissertation for 2005—explores how gender, social situation (demographic and support system), and personality traits factor into coping with a devastating cancer diagnosis.

"My investigation attempted to clarify and expand the current body of literature on adjustment to a diagnosis of cancer by using a more comprehensive approach to investigate factors suspected of influencing adjustment outcomes," says Petersen.

For her study, Petersen developed a survey that she distributed to early-stage cancer victims. The patients were asked to report on their social support, gender-related personality traits, and overall adjustment to cancer.

From the survey responses, Petersen assembled two pools of information. First, she examined the relationships between the variables suspected of predicting adjustment to cancer; second, she explored the differential influence between gender and the traits of agency (independence/autonomy), communion (relationally focused), and the unmitigated constructs (the extreme version of the constructs). "The results suggest that functional sources of social support may have the strongest association with cancer adjustment," says Petersen, who notes that the outreach opportunity gained through the experience of the study participants also proved valuable.

"Many of them were concerned with allowing something positive to occur from their participation," she says. "In essence, helping us advance the science was not so much for their own benefit, but assisted us in identifying first steps in helping others after diagnosis."

Petersen recently completed a two-year residency at the Mayo Clinic as a Medical Psychology Fellow, where she was immersed in specialized postdoctoral training in medical psychology. She is pursuing a career with a combined focus on research and clinical work in an academic medical center.