Receiving a diagnosis of cancer can have a significant emotional toll on an individual. Prostate cancer presents a unique set of stressors to men because it affects their sexual performance. Research has shown that the way a husband copes with this type of cancer can directly influence how his wife handles the illness. Using avoidant coping strategies has been shown to decrease psychological well-being. But some evidence suggests that avoiding the thoughts of ill health can have positive effects. Intrusive thoughts relating to the cancer also can have negative and positive effects. But understanding how partners’ coping strategies impact each other and the relationship could provide keys to clinicians working with spouses during this difficult time. Christopher P. Fagundes of the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah sought to determine how similar and differing coping strategies affected couples dealing with prostate cancer.
Fagundes led a study that looked at the avoidant and intrusive thoughts of 59 wives and husbands with prostate cancer over a period of 2 weeks. He found that intrusive thoughts affected the relationships positively and avoidant thoughts affected them negatively, but only when experienced by both husbands and wives at the same time. In particular, when a husband had intrusive thoughts regarding his cancer, his wife also had similar levels of intrusive thoughts and each had decreased negative affect. However, when a husband or wife avoided thoughts relating to the cancer, their spouse did as well. This directly increased negative affect in both spouses, but even more so in the wives.
The findings suggest that couples who deal with the fear and anxiety stemming from a diagnosis of prostate cancer are better able to do so when they work together. Even though some of the intrusive thoughts may be frightening, talking about them and working through them as a couple reinforces the strength of the relationship. Avoiding the topic altogether causes couples to become isolated from each other at a time when they need to be united. Fagundes believes that these results will help clinicians who work with couples facing prostate cancer target coping behaviors. He added, “Couples may benefit from interventions that are focused on improving how the partner and the patient process the cancer diagnosis together to reduce negative affect.”
Fagundes, C. P., Berg, C. A., & Wiebe, D. J. (2012). Intrusion, Avoidance, and Daily Negative Affect Among Couples Coping With Prostate Cancer: A Dyadic Investigation. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027332
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