Stress caused by a woman’s breast cancer can have a measurable negative effect – on her husband’s health, new research shows.
Men with the highest levels of stress tied to their wives' cancer are at significantly greater risk for physical symptoms and weaker immune responses, according to the study by Ohio State University psychologists.
What’s more, the negative impact on a man's health can persist even years after his wife’s cancer diagnosis and completion of treatment.
"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 lead researcher Sharla Wells-Di Gregorio, an OSU psychology specialist. "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."
Researchers sought to determine the health effects of recurrent breast cancer on patients’ male caregivers, but found men’s stress levels over the diagnosis had a bigger influence on their health than the actual status of their wives' disease.
Clinicians caring for breast cancer patients should consider the caregivers' health as well, the findings suggest.
The study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, involved 32 men whose wives had breast cancer. The men were questioned about their levels of psychological stress related to their wives' cancers and physical symptoms. Researchers also tested their immune functions.
They found the men with higher levels of stress had more physical problems, such as headaches and abdominal pain, and lower immune-system activity than their less-stressed peers.