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Cancer: How Couples Handle Stress

Study Shows Wives May Bear the Brunt of Emotional Burden
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 6, 2008 -- It seems that when half of a couple has cancer, the wife feels more strain than the husband, a study shows.

Researchers say that women shoulder more of the emotional burden whether they are diagnosed with cancer or whether their male partner has the disease.

The researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Netherlands' University Medical Center Groningen pooled data from 43 studies around the world that looked at how couples dealt with the stress of cancer.

The data included studies spanning 25 years, from 1980 to 2005.

"Breast cancer patients are going to be, on average, more distressed than their husbands; but the wives of prostate cancer patients are going to be, on average, more distressed than their husbands," says study researcher Mariet Hagedoorn in a news release.

The findings could lead to a shifting awareness of the emotional state of the caregiver or spouse of the cancer patient.

When it came to looking at past studies, the researchers noticed several inconsistent findings "because the patient was the focus, not the partner," says researcher James C. Coyne in a news release. "It is the gender that matters." 

The study also found that to some degree cancer affects the couple as a unit, with partners relying deeply on each other for support and decision-making.

While a couple coping with cancer certainly goes through stress, the study shows the stress level was elevated only to a modest degree. 

The research appears in the latest edition of Psychological Bulletin.

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