Study Finds Stress Regarding Wives' Cancer Affects Male Health
April 17, 2012

Study Finds Stress Regarding Wives’ Cancer Affects Male Health

Connie K. Ho for

Recent research at Ohio State University (OSU) found that male caregivers, whose wives have had breast cancer in the past, can have negative health effects even years after cancer diagnosis and treatment.

The OSU study focused on the impact of the recurrence of breast cancer in wives and on male caregivers. Researchers found that the stress impacted the men in such a way that there was a greater toll on their wellbeing than it did on the status of their spouses´ disease. Men who reported high stress levels also showed high risk for weak immune responses and more physical symptoms.

The research, published in a recent issue of the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, showed that caregivers should be screened for stress symptoms as well as encouraged to participate in relaxation, stress management, or other self-care activities. It also demonstrated the need to care for the caregivers´ health along with the breast cancer patient.

"If you care for the caregiver, your patient gets better care, too," said Kristen Carpenter, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Ohio State and a study co-author, in a prepared statement.

A total of 32 men were involved in the study. 16 subjects had wives who had a cancer recurrence eight months after the study began and about five years after the first diagnosis as. The other 16 subjects had wives´ whose cancers were similar to the previous 16, but whose wives´ did not have a recurrence of cancer six years after first diagnosis. Participants in the study answered questionnaires that measured the levels of psychological stress related to their partners´ cancer, physical symptoms of stress, and the level of fatigue that influenced daily activities. To test their immune function, researchers examined the white-blood-cell activation in response to three different antigens or substances that would produce an immune response from the body.

In the end, the researchers found that those whose wives´ had a recurrence of cancer had higher stress levels, more physical systems, and greater fatigue that interfered with day-to-day tasks than those whose wives´ did not have a recurrence in cancer. The physical symptoms were measured with a subjective stress assessment called Impact of Events Scale that was based off of intrusive experience and thoughts as well as avoidance of people or places that reminded subjects of the illness.

The scale was between 0 and 75; the higher the score, the more stressed the man was related to his wife´s illness. Men whose wives´ had a recurrence in cancer scored an average of 26.25, men whose wives were disease-free scored an average of 8.94. Any score between 26 and 43 demonstrated an event had a powerful influence on a person´s stress level, anything over 33 indicated “clinically significant distress.” There were also nine symptoms associated with high stress level, including coughing, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, and nausea.

"The scores reported here are quite high, substantially higher than we see in our cancer patient samples outside the first year," continued Carpenter in the statement. "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."

Besides physical symptoms, low immune responses were also identified as a correlation between stress and recurrence of cancer in a partner. Past studies have shown that those who have an impaired immune response system are more likely to be affected by infections or to react to vaccines.

"Caregivers are called hidden patients because when they go in for appointments with their spouses, very few people ask how the caregiver is doing," remarked Sharla Wells-Di Gregorio, lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at Ohio State University, in a prepared statement. "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 research at OSU was supported by a number of organizations including 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.