Spouses who have a husband or wife dealing with cancer may see their own physical and psychological health deteriorate over time, a new study suggests.
Swedish researchers found that among more than 11 000 spouses of cancer patients, the overall rate of healthcare use increased in the two years following the cancer diagnosis -- particularly when a spouse was suffering from colon or lung cancer.
Past studies have found that cancer patients' spouses have a higher-than-average risk of depression. The new findings confirm that -- showing that the rate of psychiatric diagnoses among spouses increased over time, said lead researcher Katarina O. Sjovall, of Lund University Hospital in Sweden.
Among spouses of colon and lung cancer patients, the rates of psychiatric disorders increased by roughly three-fold compared with the two years prior to the cancer diagnosis.
What the study showed
For wives of prostate cancer patients, the rate rose by 68%, Sjovall and her colleagues report in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
Having a husband or wife with cancer seemed to take a physical toll as well.
Among all spouses in the study, there was a 25% increase in certain physical health problems -- including cardiovascular diseases, like high blood pressure and heart disease, and musculoskeletal conditions, such as arthritis and chronic muscle pain.
It's possible, the researchers note, that some of these physical problems were related to eroding mental health.
The stress of having a loved one with cancer is likely at the root of the health problems seen in this study, Sjovall said.
She pointed out that advances in cancer care in recent years mean that more and more therapies are being performed on an outpatient basis. This, in turn, has increased spouses' role as informal caregiver.
Partners should speak to doctor
"Apart from emotional support and worries," Sjovall said, "it often means practical support with medication, transportation and daily life, and an increased work load in the home."
"For some partners, it is temporary emotional and practical support that is needed," she added, "but for others it means a transition into becoming a caregiver."
She suggested that spouses who feel that the stress is harming their health talk with their doctor about it.
"We also need to learn more about how we can identify individuals that are at risk of having negative impact on the health," Sjovall noted. – (Reuters Health, September 2009)
Caring for the caregiver