Separate Support Groups for Breast Cancer Patients’ Partners

Oncology NEWS International Vol 8 No 3, Volume 8, Issue 3

HAMBURG, Germany-“We need to help partners of women with breast cancer realize their role in helping their wives, express their concerns, and gain more information,” Barry Bultz, PhD, said at the Fourth International Congress of Psycho-oncology.

HAMBURG, Germany—“We need to help partners of women with breast cancer realize their role in helping their wives, express their concerns, and gain more information,” Barry Bultz, PhD, said at the Fourth International Congress of Psycho-oncology.

Dr. Bultz, of the Division of Psycho-social Oncology, Tom Baker Cancer Centre, University of Calgary, Canada, said that the reactions of cancer patients’ partners to the illness may include fear of the consequences of cancer and its treatment; anxiety, depression, and helplessness; and concerns about balancing home and work responsibilities.

In a couples intervention study, Dr. Bultz and his colleagues examined the impact of a support group for partners of women with breast cancer on the adjustment of patients, partners, and their relationships.

The researchers asked 32 couples to participate. Partners attended six weekly 2-hour groups led by two psychologists (Dr. Bultz and Michael Speca, DSc) in which they received more information about breast cancer from an oncologist and about methods for improving not only their own coping strategies but also the coping strategies of the patient.

 “Many centers run groups for couples because that’s what the literature says to do,” Dr. Bultz said. “However, when we separated partners out and focused on their issues, we found that they were overwhelmingly burdened by the impact of the disease. They didn’t know how to dialog with their wives and were uncomfortable in discussing some key issues such as body image and sexuality.”

Many men have difficulty in coping with the role of caregiver, Dr. Bultz said. “The husbands thought that as caregivers they had to focus all of their attention on their wives and consequently weren’t really able to deal with their own feelings or know how to comfort their wives about issues they themselves found distressing,” he said. These issues might not be addressed in a group with patients and partners together, he noted.

Study Results

The results of the study indicated a trend toward lower levels of mood disturbance in both patients and partners in the intervention group.

“Although we expected that the participants in the group would experience lower levels of distress and greater ability to cope,” Dr. Bultz said, “the surprise for us was that the breast cancer patients who were not attending any support group also experienced an improvement as a result of their partner’s attendance in the group.”

There was also a trend toward better confidant support for the patients whose partners were in the intervention group. Participants also noted lower levels of marital distress.

When asked about the impact of the group, 86% of the breast cancer patients stated that they felt the group had taught their partner to be a better caregiver, and 72% said they felt that the group had been helpful to their partner. More than half of the patients said that the group had helped to improve communication with their partner and had provided important information about breast cancer.

“By participating in groups where they learned about the disease process and coping strategies, partners were better able to maintain the balance within the context of the family,” Dr. Bultz said.

Partners who did not participate in the intervention reported deterioration in their level of marital satisfaction and psychological support, he said.

Although historically men have been less likely than women to participate in support or psychoeducational groups, the partners in this intervention were overwhelmingly positive about the impact of the intervention: 100% of the partners said they “liked the way the group was conducted” and felt the need for more support groups; 79% felt the group was helpful, and more than half of the partners said they wanted longer sessions and more support groups.

Both Show Psychosocial Distress

Dr. Bultz concluded that both patients with breast cancer and their partners demonstrate psychosocial distress, and both can be taught to cope with their distress and deal with the patient’s illness, and partners can learn ways to help the patient, through the use of a psycho-educational support group.

He also noted that by teaching partners practical skills and providing them with appropriate and reliable education, partners can learn to become better supporters to patients, which, in turn, can lower the level of distress in both patients and partners. “By treating partners as well as patients, we reduce the psychological distress and improve the quality of life for both,” he said.