Caring for a partner with breast cancer can have a negative effect on a man's health, even years after the diagnosis and treatment are complete, say researchers from Ohio State University. The research appears in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.
The researchers sought to determine the health effects of a recurrence of breast cancer on patients' male caregivers, but found that how stressed the men were about the cancer had a bigger influence on their health than did the current status of their wives' disease.
In the study, the men's median age was 58 years and they had been married, on average, for 26 years. Almost all of the participants were white.
In general, the men whose wives had experienced a recurrence of cancer reported higher levels of stress, greater interference from fatigue and more physical symptoms, such as headaches and abdominal pain, than did men whose wives had remained disease-free.
When the analysis took into consideration the impact of men's perceived stress in relation to their wives' cancer, higher stress was associated with compromised immune function: Specifically, men with the highest scores on the stress scale also showed the lowest immune responses to two of the three antigens.
"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, the lead author of the study. "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 findings suggest that clinicians caring for breast cancer patients could help their patients by considering the caregivers' health as well, the researchers say. This care could include screening caregivers for stress symptoms and encouraging them to participate in stress management, relaxation or other self-care activities. "If you care for the caregiver, your patient gets better care, too," concluded Kristen Carpenter, a study co-author.
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Source: Ohio State University