The Emotional Impacts of Breast Cancer
- A new study published in the Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research found that 33% of the study participants said their breast cancer diagnosis placed more stress on their marriage.
- 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer, making the illness the second most common cancer among women.
- Social support from loved ones during a cancer battle can be healing, but that doesn’t mean that additional support such as therapy isn’t needed.
A breast cancer diagnosis brings a well-spring of new worries. It’s common to worry about your prognosis, as well as the various side effects cancer treatment can bring. In addition, you may fear that your illness will alter your partnership. If you’re a Black woman living with breast cancer, researchers have promising information to share. On the upside, new research published in the Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research shows that most African American women navigate illness-induced challenges like stress, anxiety and fatigue by leaning on their partners for support.Read More
“We examined how a breast cancer diagnosis affected not only African American patients but also how patients perceived their breast cancer to have affected their husbands’ health and their marriage,” Tess Thompson, assistant professor at Brown University and lead author of the study, said in a press release.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer, making the illness the second most common cancer among women. Risk factors like age, genetic mutations (BRCA1 or BRCA2 positive), prolonged exposure to estrogen and radiation exposure can increase breast cancer risk. While Black and white women are just as likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, Black women are more likely to die from the illness, says the CDC.
Like most cancer diagnoses, breast cancer impacts a woman’s physical and psychological well-being, leading to increased stress, insomnia and depression. With these challenges, emotional support from one’s partner is crucial and plays a vital role in the healing process.
For the latest study, Thompson and her colleagues interviewed 15 African American breast cancer survivors between the ages of 47 and 78. All participants were married to African American men, and the average length of marriage was 23 years. Five participants had children, and ten participants reported a household income below $50,000/year. The researchers found several themes that help explain how breast cancer can impact martial satisfaction.
“The perceived effects of cancer on relationships varied across couples, as did perceptions of the adequacy of husbands’ emotional and tangible support,” Thompson shared. “Many of the women described their husbands’ key role in promoting the wives’ positive body image, as well as the challenges involved in negotiating sexual activity during and after treatment. Most of the women did report being receptive to help from medical professionals in dealing with relationship issues.”
More than 50% of the woman who were interviewed said their breast cancer diagnosis strengthened their relationship. “I was just so grateful and… happy that he was right here with me through all that, that it cemented our relationship even more,” said one woman. Another woman shared, “I often say that I always knew my husband loved me… but [after cancer] I really knew he loved me. I mean, that just solidified everything.” In many cases, this kind of loving support gives cancer patients strength and encouragement.
But if your cancer diagnosis hasn’t bolstered your marriage, it doesn’t mean your relationship is in peril. For instance, several women who participated in the study reported that sexual compatibility became a source of stress.
Dr. Kimberly Resnick, a gynecological oncologist at Metro Health Cleveland, says it’s not uncommon for cancer treatment to zap a woman’s sex drive. “There are so many factors at play,” said Dr. Resnick. “I talk to my patients, and I tell them that anything on the desire spectrum is considered normal. If a patient wants to be sexually active, that’s normal, and I give them my blessing because I think intimacy does help. And if they feel the need to abstain, I support that as well.”
Other women said their husbands were emotionally unavailable and withdrawn. “My husband became a little less tenderly-supportive, which made me feel alone,” one person shared. “I wanted to cry on someone’s shoulder, and my husband calls that being a wimp,” the participant said.
Supporting a partner who’s sick brings unchartered challenges because spouses are often distressed, too. Each person also handles the diagnosis differently, which is why strong emotions like fear and sadness may cause your partner to pull away. For instance, one study participant believed her husband shut down because he feared she would die.
While no one (not even your oncologist) can predict the future, open communication with your partner is vital. Strong emotions are less likely to rattle your relationship when you can talk about them openly.
What Does This Mean For People With Breast Cancer?
The study findings point out that social support from loved ones can be healing, but that doesn’t mean that additional support such as therapy isn’t needed. The study researchers hope their results help healthcare professionals guide their breast cancer patients’ behavioral and emotional care. “Oncology social workers can use this information to help to screen and provide support and mental health services for women and for their families,” Thompson said.
Asking for help can make patients feel vulnerable, but Dr. Susan Parsons, director of survivorship care at Tufts Medical Center, says there’s no shame in needing assistance.
“When you get sick, please ask for help. Don’t be afraid to lean on your family and friends during cancer. There is no substitute for having people around you, to help push your doctors for answers and to provide support. For those so-called “caregivers” the act of giving can also be very rewarding,” Dr. Parsons says.
Support: During or After Cancer Treatment
- Check to see if your hospital offers a support group for people in treatment (there may even be a particular one focusing on the type of cancer you have), and/or private sessions with a hospital social worker. Many cancer facilities are realizing the importance of these resources and working to make them easily available.
- Additional organizations to look into include: Young Survival Coalition, for people diagnosed with breast cancer at younger ages (generally, early 40s or below); and SHARE, for women and families affected by breast, ovarian, or uterine cancer. Cancer Care offers support groups, one-on-one counseling, and also financial guidance—in person (when it’s possible) or by phone.
- Remember—loved ones of the person with cancer may need help too, and many hospitals and organizations (including the ones above) are working to provide it. Keeping everyone’s needs in mind and trying to address them will help your whole crew to stay sane and face the stresses that cancer can bring.