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Cancer Patients' Caregivers at Risk

Ernie Shannon's picture

A classic case of husbands focusing on their own stress in the face of their wives’ life-threatening breast cancer? Or evidence of a serious health risk?

A study appearing in a recent issue of the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity suggests the stress men suffer in the wake of their wives’ breast cancer can threaten their own health and says physicians ought to consider both the patient and the caregiver when providing treatment.

This smacks of men crying over hangnails while their wives battle disease, but there could be something to it.

The journal article, written by Sharla Wells-Di Gregorio, an assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the Ohio State University and Kristen Carpenter, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Ohio State, says men who report high levels of stress related to their spouse’s cancer are at risk of physical symptoms and weaker immune responses. The authors sought to determine the health effects of a recurrence of breast cancer on patients’ male caregivers, but discovered just how stressed men become and the effect it has on their own health. The findings imply that clinicians caring for breast cancer patients could help their patients by considering the caregivers’ health as well.

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“If you care for the caregiver, your patient gets better care too,” said Carpenter.

The stress assessment referred to in the study is called an Impact of Events Scale. It measures intrusive experiences and thoughts as well as attempts to avoid people and places that serve as painful reminders. The scale produces a score between 0 – 75 and for this study, the higher the score the more stressed the men were in relation to their wives’ cancer.

Overall, the men in the study produced an average score of 17.59. Men whose wives’ cancer had recurred scored 26.25 as a group, and men whose wives were disease-free scored 8.94. According to the scale, scores above nine suggest a likely effect from the events and scores between 26 and 43 indicate an event has had a powerful effect on a person’s stress level. Scores over 33 signal clinically significant distress.

“The scores reported here are quite high, substantially higher than we3 see in our cancer patient samples outside the first year,” Carpenter said. “Guilt, depression, fear of loss – all of those things are stressful. And this is not an acute stressor that lasts a few weeks. It’s chronic stress that lasts for years.”

Wells-De Gregorio added, “Caregivers are called hidden patients because when they go in for appointments with their spouses, very few people ask how the caregiver is doing. These men are experiencing significant distress and physical complaints, but often do not seek medical care for themselves due to their focus on their wives illness.”