Growing evidence suggests that qualitative research about sensitive topics is emotional work with varied unanticipated risks for researchers. This autoethnographic essay adds to the extant literature by discussing the complexities added when the research topic is sensitive, and the researcher has not personally experienced the topic under study. I reflect on and analyze epiphanies in my research with 28 ovarian cancer survivors in northwest Ohio and southern Michigan in the United States, including how I processed the death of some participants. I suggest that practicing active listening, reflexivity, and flexibility can help manage limitations of a research project of this nature; however, these strategies can complicate the emotional vulnerability of the researcher and further limit the research. Implications of the study include a need for researchers seeking to study ovarian cancer or other sensitive topics to proactively incorporate flexibility and reflexivity into every phase of the research process and avoid making decisions for participants. Additionally, this research suggests to healthcare practitioners to understand the varied influences on the ovarian cancer experience, including guilty feelings and fear of death or disease recurrence, and acknowledge these during counseling sessions and at follow-up visits to help validate women’s experiences and open avenues for support.


active listening, emotions, flexibility, ovarian cancer, reflexivity, autoethnography

Author Bio(s)

Dinah Tetteh, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of communication studies and James & Wanda Vaughn Endowed Professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Communication at Arkansas State University. Her research and teaching interests include health communication, women’s cancers, cancer survivorship, social support, and qualitative methodology. She is the author of Communication Studies and Feminist Perspectives on Ovarian Cancer (2018, Lexington Books). Her research has been published in journals such as Feminist Media Studies, Cancer Investigation, Health Communication, Global Health Promotion, Qualitative Research in Medicine and Healthcare, Women’s Reproductive Health, Health Care for Women International, and Information Technologies & International Development. Please direct correspondence to dtetteh@astate.edu

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