Depression Risk for Partners of Breast Cancer Patients

Researchers Say Partners of Cancer Patients Should Be Screened for Depression

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on September 27, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 27, 2010 -- Women with breast cancer have an increased risk for depression, and now new research finds the same thing to be true for the men in their lives.

The study followed more than a million men enrolled in a nationwide Danish health registry for 13 years.

Those with partners diagnosed with breast cancer during this period were almost 40% more likely to be hospitalized for depression, bipolar disease, or another mood disorder compared to men whose partners did not have breast cancer.

The hospitalization rate was almost fourfold higher for men whose partners died of the disease when compared to men whose partners survived breast cancer.

Study researcher Christoffer Johansen, MD, PhD, of Denmark’s Institute of Cancer Epidemiology says the partners of women with breast cancer may be more at risk because their emotional needs are often overlooked.

The study appears today online in the journal Cancer, published by the American Cancer Society.

“We found that spouses may be as vulnerable, or even more vulnerable, to serious depression as the wives who have breast cancer,” Johansen tells WebMD.

Several smaller studies have shown an increase in depression risk among partners of cancer patients, while others have not.

But the newly published study is the first to use data from a nationwide registry of depression and other mood-disorder-related hospitalizations to objectively assess the risk of severe depression and mood disorders among partners of breast cancer patients, also identified through a national health registry.

Between 1994 and 2006, roughly 20,500 women with partners received a diagnosis of breast cancer. During the same period, 180 of the partners were hospitalized for depression or other serious mood disorders.

This compared to just over 12,000 hospitalizations among 1.1 million men with wives or girlfriends who were not diagnosed with breast cancer.

Among men with a partner diagnosed with breast cancer, the risk of hospitalization for depression increased by 50% among the partners of women whose breast cancer advanced after initial treatment, and the risk was 3.6-times higher for men whose partners died of the disease.

Screening Partners for Depression

Johansen and colleagues recommend screening partners of cancer patients for depression.

University of Washington professor of family and child nursing Frances Marcus Lewis, PhD, agrees. Lewis has also studied the emotional impact of breast cancer on the spouses of women being treated for the disease, but her research focused on depressed mood and not major depression.

Her study found an increase in depressed mood even among men whose wives had a low risk of dying from their disease.

Marcus Lewis is currently conducting a larger trial, funded by the National Cancer Institute, designed to identify interventions that can reduce depression among spouses of breast cancer patients.

“This is a cancer that is often perceived as not a big deal for spouses because it is so treatable,” she tells WebMD. “Diseases like late-stage Alzheimer’s get a different type of attention, because the emotional impact on spouses is widely recognized.”

Most of the women in her study had early-stage breast cancers and their chances for survival were very good.

“Even though this was the case, many men worried that they were going to lose their partner,” she says.

Lewis says male partners of breast cancer patients should be involved in discussions with doctors and in decisions about treatment, if the patient is comfortable with this.

And she says couples should set aside a time each week for what she calls “kitchen table discussions” to talk about how each of them is doing.

“I really do believe sharing feelings and thoughts -- even fears and other negative emotions -- can have a big impact on emotional and physical healing,” she says.

Show Sources


Johansen, C. Cancer, Sept. 27, 2010, online edition.

Christoffer Johansen, MD, PhD, Institute of Cancer Epidemiology, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Frances Marcus Lewis, PhD, professor, school of nursing, department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, University of Washington; faculty, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle.

News release, American Cancer Society.

Marcus Lewis, F. Journal of Clinical Oncology, March 10, 2008.

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