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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Whether a man is recovering from cancer or helping his spouse to deal with cancer, how his wife is coping emotionally will play a key role in his physical health, a new American Cancer Society (ACS)-funded study shows.
"Regardless of your status as a caregiver or a cancer patient, gender matters," the study's first author, Dr. Youngmee Kim of the ACS's Behavioral Research Center in Atlanta, told Reuters Health.
While health professionals treating cancer patients are increasingly recognizing the importance of emotional health, Kim added, less attention has been paid to how the emotional health of a patient's spouse might affect his or her quality of life. To investigate, she and her colleagues looked at 168 married couples. One member of each pair had been diagnosed with prostate or breast cancer roughly two years before joining the study.
The cancer patient's own level of psychological stress was the most important factor in determining his or her quality of life, the researchers found.
Overall, patients and their spouses tended to have similar levels of emotional distress, and the level of emotional distress a partner had didn't independently influence his or her spouse's distress levels.
However, the researchers did find that the emotional stress level of breast cancer survivors was related to the physical health of their spouse, and the degree of emotional stress experienced by the wives of prostate cancer survivors influenced their husbands' physical health.
"Although these two partner effects may seem disparate, they are actually very similar in that they both show that the woman's psychological distress (as either survivors or caregivers) was negatively related to her husband's physical health," Kim and her colleagues write in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
Women's psychological distress is a stressor for men, she noted in an interview. While men may not to feel this stress psychologically, they will feel it in their bodies, for example as backaches or headaches -- a phenomenon known as somatization.
Women tend to have friends beyond their husband, whom they can rely on for emotional help, but a man's spouse may be his sole emotional resource. "If their wives are psychologically distressed, that means their wives are not emotionally available," she added.
The findings show, Kim said, that while the focus of cancer care is expanding to include the whole person, not just his or her disease, it should expand further. "We need to deal with the whole family, beyond the whole person."
SOURCE: Annals of Behavioral Medicine, April 2008.