MONDAY, April 23, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- The stress of caring for a wife with breast cancer can harm a man's health, and this effect can continue for years after her treatment ends, new research says.
The Ohio State University study of 32 men found that those who had the highest levels of stress related to their wives' cancer were most likely to have physical symptoms -- such as headaches and abdominal pain -- and weaker immune responses.
Previous research has suggested that people with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to infection and might not respond well to vaccines.
The median age of the men in the study was 58, and they had been married for an average of 26 years.
"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 a chronic stress that lasts for years," study co-author Kristen Carpenter, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology, said in a university news release.
The findings, published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, suggest that doctors caring for breast cancer patients could help their patients by considering their caregivers' health, too, the researchers said.
This could include screening caregivers for stress symptoms and encouraging them to participate in stress management, relaxation or other self-care therapies.
"If you care for the caregiver, your patient gets better care too," Carpenter said.
"Caregivers are called hidden patients because when they go in for appointments with their spouses, very few people ask how the caregiver is doing," study author Sharla Wells-Di Gregorio, an assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology, said in the news release. "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."
Men Against Breast Cancer provides resources for men caring for women with breast cancer.