Cancer spouses report similar distress to patients

In collaboration with the Press Association

Spouses of cancer patients experience a similar level of physical and emotional distress to patients themselves, a new study has found.

Researchers from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Centre asked 263 men with prostate cancer and their spouses to complete questionnaires on their own quality of life, including physical, social, family, emotional and functional issues.

The results revealed little difference in quality of life between patients and their spouses, but revealed that there were major variations in quality of life depending on the phase of the patient's illness, with couples who were coping with advanced prostate cancer reporting a significantly poorer quality of life.

In addition, the findings highlighted the fact that many spouses feel less confident in their ability to manage the illness than patients, and spouses also tended to report less social support than patients.

Dr Laurel Northouse, co-director of the Socio-Behavioural Programme at the university's Comprehensive Cancer Centre, said: "The spouses of advanced cancer patients are really carrying the load.

"Cancer is a devastating illness, and a patient's primary resource is the partner, who often doesn't have the information she needs to deal with these complex problems.

"Doctors, nurses and even family and friends often focus mainly on the patient who has cancer and don't realise the illness has enormous ramifications on the family, especially the spouse," she continued.

The researchers have published their findings in the Journal of Clinical Oncology and are calling for more healthcare interventions aimed at both patients and their partners.

Cancer Research UK has welcomed the research, noting that the findings correspond with the charity's own observations.

Martin Ledwick, the charity's head cancer information nurse, said: "It is good to see the needs of relatives of people with cancer being investigated. Around 50 per cent of the enquirers using Cancer Research UK's information service are relatives or friends of people affected by cancer, which reinforces the findings of this study." Mr Ledwick said that carers, relatives and friends often find it hard to ask questions at their loved one's appointments "as they are concerned that their husband or wife may not be ready to discuss the things that they want to ask".

"Also within a family people can have different emotional and communication needs at different times, which can prove to be an added cause of emotional distress," he noted.