A very interesting study appears in the April issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
The study concluded that when a married couple deals with cancer, either partner’s psychological distress might have a significant negative impact on the other. It did nor matter which of the partner had the cancer diagnosis.
“Whether it is my own or my partner’s, psychological distress it 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.
When the distress affects the female spouse, the impact is often greater on the male. Kim said “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.”
The study only looked at male-female pairs. One member of each couple had received a breast or prostate cancer diagnosis about two years before participating in the survey.
Surprisingly, husbands with wives under high stress rarely reported psychological or emotional problems themselves.
“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 and 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.
The female spouses of men under stress did not report a similar somaization of their feelings.
Since stress on either spouse, especially the female, will have a significant affect on both members of the couple, we need to treat both the patient and their spouse. Helping the other spouse, especially the female, may improve the over all health of both.
A cancer diagnosis of one person is a cancer diagnosis of the entire couple. We need to remember this and provide support for both the patient and their spouse.
Joel T Nowak MA, MSW