THURSDAY, March 20, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- For couples coping with cancer, the physical health of the husband -- as either patient or caregiver -- appears particularly influenced by the wife's frame of mind, new research suggests.
The finding also suggests that a husband is particularly sensitive to fluctuations in his wife's experience of psychological distress -- more so than she is to his.
The research was presented recently by Youngmee Kim, director of the American Cancer Society's Family Studies Research, during the launch of an ACS "Hope Lodge" in New York City -- part of the society's nationwide network of free temporary housing for cancer patients undergoing treatment.
Kim said the finding, which is scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of Annals of Behavioral Medicine , evolved from the premise that "cancer care-giving is equally distressing to the cancer caregiver as it is to the patient."
And, she stressed, "the issue has a great impact on society," given that nearly 11 million cancer survivors are currently living in the United States --a figure likely to rise as the population ages.
To gauge the nuances of this impact, Kim conducted a survey of the quality of life and psychological distress experienced by 168 married patient-caregiver pairs -- half coping with breast cancer, half coping with prostate cancer.
Most of the participants were white, middle-aged, relatively affluent and well-educated. Most were interviewed by mail approximately two years following the initial cancer diagnosis.
Kim found that although all the caregivers and patients appeared to both affect and be affected by each other's state of mind, gender drove some differences in the pair's dynamic -- with men generally more vulnerable.
The greater the psychological distress among wives suffering from breast cancer, the poorer the physical health of their caretaking husbands -- regardless of the husband's own quality of life. And the greater the psychological distress among wives attending to the needs of their husbands coping with prostate cancer, the poorer the physical health of the male patient.
Kim suggested that the greater sensitivity observed among men could be a function not just of typical gender roles but also of related communication patterns.
"Females go out with friends and talk about their problems," she said. "But often a man's best friend is his wife, and if the wife is not emotionally available, then the man tends to physicalize the stress."
"But whether male or female, managing stress is very important for caregivers," Kim added. "Psycho-social support -- maybe through meeting with a local group of caregivers -- is a great resource for that. And it's also important to try to make sure there is always some open communication between the couple."
Julia Rowland, director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute's Office of Cancer Survivorship, said the study carries an important public health message.
"We need to recognize how important caregivers are," she said. "Because social support is an important buffer for all sorts of outcomes -- not only for affording patients a better quality of life, but also to help them live longer.
"But when these relationships are stressed and go wrong, the opposite can occur," Rowland cautioned. "So we recognize that a survivor is not just the individual with the disease but also the caregiver. There is mutuality about the experience."
She added, "And as the population ages, this is going to be a growing concern for more and more of us who will carry a history of cancer. So it's very important that caregivers get the help they need, if they're going to be responsible for playing an important role in helping patients."
To learn more about cancer and caregivers, visit the American Cancer Society.