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Posted: April 01, 2008

Treating Spousal Caregiver Stress May Help Partners with Cancer

Some cancers are a "couples’ disease," where the intimate caregiving involvement causes psychological stress to the caregiver and may even drag down the health of the cancer patient, according to a new study of married couples.

"Whether it is my own or my partner’s, psychological distress may impact my quality of life," said lead researcher Youngmee Kim, director of Family Studies at the American Cancer Society’s Behavioral Research Center in Atlanta.

The physical health of husbands in the study of 168 married couples seemed to be especially vulnerable to the poor emotional well-being of their caregiving wives.

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"We found an interesting pattern. The psychological distress of the female partner seemed to have the greatest effect -- whether the woman was the breast cancer survivor or the caregiver of a man with prostate cancer. If the female has higher level of psychological distress, the male partner will have higher level of psychosomatic problems," Kim said.

The study appears in the April issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

All of the couples in the study were male-female pairs. In all cases, one of the partners had received a breast or prostate cancer diagnosis about two years before participating in American Cancer Society surveys, from which the new study data were drawn.

In the survey, husbands with wives under high stress rarely reported psychological or emotional problems.

"Men tend not to say that psychological stress associated with cancer diagnosis and treatment is a problem, but they tend to somatize those stresses, reporting headaches, backaches. Maybe men are not conditioned or socialized to express those touchy feelings. They tend to show those feelings -- let them come out -- through their body," Kim said.

Kim and her colleagues said their study could be a starting point for identifying groups of caregivers who might benefit from programs designed to improve coping skills or reduce stress.

In particular, helping women manage psychological stress might improve the mental and physical health of both partners dealing with cancer, Kim said.

"Often in clinical practice, we only pay attention to the patient or survivor -- try to improve their distress. But beyond focusing on the patient -- in addition to treating the survivor’s stress -- we need to include or pay attention to caregiving wives. That will impact the patient. It’s indirect care," Kim said.

"People are starting to understand that some cancers can be seen as a couples’ disease," said Frank Penedo, associate professor in the Division of Bio-behavioral Oncology and Cancer Control at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

"The males’ perception of how well they function physically in some ways depends on the support they get from their partner," Penedo said.

When a man has a stressed-out wife, reports from the men suggest it is their physical health, not emotional well-being, that is likely to suffer, he said.

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