Department of Family Therapy Dissertations and Applied Clinical Projects

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Family Therapy


College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences – Department of Family Therapy


Christopher Burnett

Committee Member

Ron Chenail

Committee Member

Steven Kaltman


Each year, approximately 43,000 people in the United States, receive a diagnosis of cancer of the head and neck (American Cancer Society 2019). A diagnosis of cancer, regardless of its location can be overwhelming for patients, their caregivers, and their family system. Receiving such a diagnosis causes a reaction of heightened emotions and anxiety. With that, there is a growing need for medical familytherapists. Medical family therapy has been documented as an effective approach for aiding medical providers to increase the quality of care for patients. Traditionally, medical family therapy is associated withgeneral practitioners, pediatricians, and such medical environments. This autoethnographic study used the researcher's own personal journey as a mental health professional entering into the unique and challenging population of head and neck cancer (HNC). This research will be the first to explore the transition of a medical family therapist into the dental community. The purpose of this dissertation study was to understand the impact this challenging and unique population has on the student medical family therapist. The researcher examined the many relationships involved in the personal care of HNC patients as well as the professional care in the medical context of oral surgeons. It was through the application of Bowen's Family Systems Theory that the researcher was able to identify her own differentiation of self and triangulation entering such a different medical dynamic. The researcher reviewed her own interactions and experiences within the system of the patient, the resident surgeon, and faculty. The researcher evaluated this experience using Bowen's Family Systems Theory (BFST) lens. Applying the eight concepts of this theory, the researcher was able to work through her own personal challenges while managing the many relationships experienced in the process within the context of a teaching institute in the field of HNC, as a student herself. This study is based on the researcher's one-year clinical rotation with the Oral Maxillofacial residents ofNova Southeastern University and attending faculty.