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The Stress of Cancer

stress of cancerWhen a couple is dealing with cancer, the partner without the malignancy may, as a function of their distress, suppress the well-being of either person.

A study of 168 married couples uncovered the relationship.

“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 seemed to be especially vulnerable to the poor emotional well-being of their wives.

“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 people 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.

Source: Health Behavior News Service

The Stress of Cancer

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). The Stress of Cancer. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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