Shared Coping by Both Partners Helps Wives with Breast Cancer

Dealing with the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer is something both a woman with cancer and her husband must do. In a new study, Lia M. Kraemer and her colleagues looked at how each partner’s coping mechanisms affected the overall psychological stress following a wife’s treatment for breast cancer. Kraemer, of the University of California, Los Angeles, and lead author of the study, said that the amount of psychological distress a cancer survivor experiences can be predicted by the type of coping strategies she and her partner use. “Theoretically, partners’ coping strategies that promote engagement with the stressor should reassure the ill person of the partner’s concern, promote intimacy, and decrease the burden on the affected person, as the partner shares in the management of the illness,” said Kraemer. “In addition, the partner engaging in “we” talk regarding coping with the patient’s medical problem predicts improvement in disease-related symptoms and general health in individuals with chronic disease.”

The researchers enlisted 139 couples comprised of men and their female partners who had recently undergone treatment for breast cancer. The first interview was conducted 10 months after diagnoses, and the second 20 months after. The researchers could not identify one single coping strategy that stood out as the most likely to decrease stress, but did notice that approach-oriented strategies in general were most beneficial to both partners. “Women’s own approach-oriented coping predicted improvements in their vitality and depressive symptoms, whereas their husbands’ approach-oriented coping predicted an increase in women’s perceived cancer-related benefits,” said the team. “In conclusion, this research highlights the importance of examining patients’ and partners’ coping strategies simultaneously.” They added, “That approach-oriented coping by husbands predicted enhanced benefit finding by wives complements research suggesting that actively engaging in the breast cancer experience, talking about the marital relationship, and the partner engaging in ‘we’ talk regarding coping with the medical problem of the patient are associated with improved well-being and health in the couple or patient experiencing chronic disease.”

Kraemer, L. M., Stanton, A. L., Meyerowitz, B. E., Rowland, J. H., & Ganz, P. A. (2011, September 19). A Longitudinal Examination of Couples’ Coping Strategies as Predictors of Adjustment to Breast Cancer. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0025551

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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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  • v.r.


    October 9th, 2011 at 7:05 PM

    I’m dealing with cancer just now from the side of the partner and it’s hard to know the right thing to say or do for my spouse from one day to the next. I do my best to be supportive and not get down myself or too stressed too in the process, but I’m only human. I know I won’t be much use to them if I do. I guess what matters is we’re in it together.

  • Rona Mooney

    Rona Mooney

    October 9th, 2011 at 7:31 PM

    When my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer her husband’s “coping strategy” was total denial. He just pretended it wasn’t happening and told her if she needed to talk about it to talk to the women around her. I was shocked at his reaction. He wouldn’t even go to appointments with her or ask how they went. In the end she beat it but his behavior caused irreparable damage to their relationship.

    He said later it was because he was terrified of losing her and couldn’t deal with the idea of that. Ironically he did anyway as she divorced him. She didn’t want to feel unsupported like that ever again.

  • H. T. Lesley

    H. T. Lesley

    October 9th, 2011 at 7:55 PM

    I don’t think men handle illness as well as women do, either as the patient or the caregiver, and particularly life-threatening ones. Sorry guys but it’s true. I don’t know if it’s because we’re generally the ones that nurture the family and are used to handling illnesses from our child’s first cold. Maybe it’s because we give birth and that makes us more attuned to life and death situations.

    In my experience men can be well, clumsy about it, if it’s their partner. Well-meaning, most of them, but clumsy in their words and actions. We should however give them big points for effort.

  • jason


    October 9th, 2011 at 10:18 PM

    hard to imagine how it would feel to be diagnosed with breast cancer and be snubbed by your would be a painful ordeal for any woman.a partner who stands by her and supports her while truly understanding her would be an asset.and it also ensures that the promise to be together in sickness and in health is kept up.

  • Nikki


    October 10th, 2011 at 4:19 AM

    When my sister was diagnosed with lung cancer, her husband just kind of zoned out. He did nothing to deal with his own coping and definitely did nothing to help her cope with the diagnosis either. I think that this was really a time where he unfortunately showed his true colors, and had it been during any other time in her life then she probably would have divorced him. I know that I would not have minded seeing her do that! But her fight was too great and took too much from her and that was one battle that she had to leave unfought. Sadly she lost that battle to cancer too but she gave it a good fight.

  • K S

    K S

    October 10th, 2011 at 10:36 PM

    Sharing happiness multiplies it and sharing sorrow only divides it. And old adage that holds good in any part of the world for any situation and at any time.

    For something like breast cancer,it can have a lot of impact mentally on the woman. And although any support is good at such a time, support and understanding from the husband can be a big boost I can imagine.Maybe the doctors do need to start prescribing a few things other than medicines now-to help the patient cope mentally and emotionally.

  • susanne


    October 11th, 2011 at 4:22 PM

    Someone living with cancer and fighting that illness needs all kinds and love and support around her- fair weather friends are great, but you really need those who are willing to tough it out with you through thick and thin. I cannot imagine being with someone who could not give me the support that I needed. This is the time when you need a whole lot of strength and encouragement form others, not the time that you should feel like you have to dole it out yourself. Cancer is hard- any illness like that it. It takes all of your time and energy but you have to have someone there to hold your hand and help you get through that. Any good spouse will be there to do that for you.

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