How Coping with Prostate Cancer Affects Intimate Relationships

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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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • KJP


    March 7th, 2012 at 5:05 PM

    I was just recently diagnosed myself with this cancer so I know what a toll it takes on your mental state. I am fairly young at 53, and yet I am worried that this might be the end of the sexual road for me. I am not married but am in a relationship so I wonder how long she is going to stamd by me if the going gets rough. My doctors assure me that this does not have to be the end all and be all, but kind of gets you thinkking, you know?

  • Iris


    March 8th, 2012 at 1:51 PM

    How a spouse copes and reacts is going to influence how we relate to any diagnosis, whether it is prostate cancer, breast cancer, or anything else. This is person that we married for better or for worse, so they better be there to support me when things get a little on the worse side. When you are facing a diagnosis like this you can’t be dealing with someone who gets all anxious and stressed- that’s for you, and the healthy partner has to take their tunr at being strong!

  • Bekah


    March 8th, 2012 at 5:57 PM

    With so many issues like this very one coming up, especially when there is a scary diagnosis like cancer, it would be so wise to refer the patient and their spouse to therapy so that they have someone who can listen to and calm their fears. Most medical doctors do not have that kind of reassuring manner (no offense) but a counselor or therapist could be there as some extra support that any couple would find themselves needing in times like that. It might take breaking down a few walls to have MDs realize the relevance of this kind of work, but I think that there would be a lot of patients who would get quite a lot of benefit from this kind of referral.

  • dane


    March 9th, 2012 at 2:07 PM

    Although we would like to think so, avoiding the problem does not make it go away. Most of the time it only makes it get worse.

  • Hart


    March 9th, 2012 at 7:52 PM

    Understandable how certain illnesses can affect the normal sexual relations and in turn bring in more stress and possible discord in the relationship.And yes how the couple works together could be a good indicator not only of stress levels but could also determine how well they cope with it and in turn determine the recovery process.

  • lazydaisy


    March 10th, 2012 at 10:44 AM

    If this happened to my husband then I like to think that I would be supportive no matter what. Why shouldn’t I be?

  • Hans D

    Hans D

    March 11th, 2012 at 12:50 PM

    That must be a tough diagnosis for any man to stomach.
    Would be much easier if the wife could help instead of becoming standoffish.

  • Alice


    March 30th, 2012 at 8:23 PM

    My husband had surgery for prostate CA about 4 years ago. That was the end of our sex life or anything resembling a sex life. He did go to a MD about it, was told nothing could be done and his wife should be more “understanding”. That was also the end of any conversation between us. We’re still together but it’s kind of like having a roommate or something. I just try to word really hard at work so I don’t think about the fact I’m still young and won’t ever have those experiences again. It’s very sad.

  • Warren


    March 14th, 2015 at 10:04 AM

    It’s never over. What did the Dr say? There are a lot of options

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