Spouses of Cancer Survivors Facing Too Many Challenges to Care for Themselves

HealHeal Winter 2021

Cancer impacts the entire family, and spouses acting as caregivers are experiencing depression and anxiety, without seeking help.

Spouses of survivors suffering from mental health issues are more likely to seek mental health care if their partner does as well, and less likely if their partner’s health conditions are worsening, according to an observational study published in Cancer.

“We hypothesized that worse health and greater health service among cancer survivors would be associated with lower rates of mental health care use among their spouses,” the authors wrote. “The findings will improve our understanding of why some caregivers access mental health care for depression, anxiety or emotional distress whereas others do not, with implications for the delivery of supportive care to cancer survivors and their families.”

Data was taken from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey to find individuals who are married and have had cancer. Participants were excluded if the marriage ended, both spouses reported cancer or if their data was proxy reported. Participants were also excluded from the study if there was missing data from the self-administered questionnaire. In the end, a total of 1,882 spouses of cancer survivors were followed for five rounds over a two-and-a-half-year period.

The spouses of cancer survivors were, on average, 61 years old, female (54%), and non-Hispanic White (85%).

There were four covariates of participants. Those with predisposing characteristics, including age, sex, race, educational level, and residence region. Those with enabling characteristics including employment status, income, children in household and access to healthcare. Need characteristics including number of health conditions, self-rated physical and mental health. Lastly, survivors’ characteristics included the number of health conditions, self-rated physical and mental health, limitations of basic daily living and health service use.

A total of 71% of survivor’s spouses reported a very good or excellent mental health state, 14% reported distress and 6% reported depressed moods. About 27% of survivors’ spouses reported receiving mental health treatment during the 5 rounds, 86% receiving only a prescription, 9% receiving a prescription and psychotherapy and 5% receiving only psychotherapy.

It was found that spouses of cancer survivors are three times more likely to use mental health care if the cancer survivors they are caring for has received it. Those with need characteristics were most likely to use mental health care, followed by survivors, enabling and predisposing characteristics.

“The findings of the current study enhance understanding of how health outcomes are intertwined in families with cancer and reinforce the importance of a family centered approach to cancer care that facilitates psychological care,” say the authors.

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