Husbands of Breast Cancer

Stress related to wives breast cancer has negative effects on mens health

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) Men taking care of their wives during breast cancer treatment undergo a significant amount of stress and anxiety. In fact, it could cause men’s health to decline - even years after the completion of cancer treatment.

Men with the highest stress related to their wives treatment showed weakened immune systems, a new study suggests. These men reported physical symptoms related to stress for approximately seven years.

"Consider a stress treatment program, meditation, or other self-care activities"

"Caregivers are called hidden patients because when they go in for appointments with their spouses, very few people ask how the caregiver is doing," said Sharla Wells-Di Gregorio, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at Ohio State University.

"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."

The study asked 32 men with an average age of 58 to complete questionnaires that measured psychological stress related to the cancer diagnosis, physical stress symptoms, and fatigue. On average, the men had been married 26 years.

Half of the men had wives with cancer recurrence about eight months before the study. The cancer recurrence was about five years after the initial diagnosis. The other half of the men had wives who remained cancer free for about six years after the initial diagnosis.

The men had their immune system tested via an analysis of their white blood cells.

The researchers found that the men whose wives had a cancer recurrence had higher stress levels, higher fatigue, and more physical stress symptoms, like headaches, abdominal pain, nausea, or coughing.

Additionally, men whose wives had cancer recurrence showed lower immune function than the men whose wives had remained cancer free.

The team believes that by providing better care for caregivers would ultimately result in better care for the cancer patients as well. Clinicians could provide screenings for stress and encourage participation in stress management programs.

“For men caring for an ill spouse, acknowledging emotional needs as they assume this nurturing role can be difficult, and emotional distress can expressed as physical, rather than emotional symptoms,” adds relationship expert Barbara Long, MD, PhD. “Physicians who interact with male caretakers need to take an active role in educating men about the mind-body connection and help them establish ways to manage both physical and emotional symptoms: exercise, refraining from alcohol and other substances, relaxation techniques, spiritual support. Most of all, they need to accept the support of others rather than trying to shoulder all of the emotions alone.”

The study was published in the February 2012 edition of the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity and was funded by the Ann and Herbert Siegel American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Fellowship, the Longaberger Company-American Cancer Society Grant for Breast Cancer Research, the U.S. Army Medical Research Acquisition Activity Grants, the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Cancer Institute.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 17, 2012
Last Updated:
April 18, 2012