Conversation helps cancer patients cope
Conversation within a relationship can help cancer patients, according to a study led by Matthias Mehl, an associate professor in the department of psychology. The study is currently under review to be published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
“We know that the cancer diagnosis comes in a package of two if you live in a couple,” Mehl said.
The goal of the study was to examine the daily communication between breast cancer patients and their partners, including how often the couples talked about cancer and how those conversations affected their mental state, Mehl said.
The researchers studied the couples by using a listening device called an Electronically Activated Recorder, or EAR. The device records 50 seconds for every nine minutes of elapsed time, which constitutes approximately 10 percent of the day.
Dr. Matthias Mehl studied the conversations between couples where one partner has breat cancer using electronically activated recorders, or EARs for short. The device recorded the couple's conversations for about 10 percent of the day.
According to Mehl, the results were surprising.
“I went into it thinking cancer would be the absorbing experience in the couples’ life,” Mehl said.
Instead, their conversations were like those of “normal” couples. One of the research assistants said that he would not have known the conversations were between cancer patients and their partners if had he not been told, Mehl said.
The recorded conversations consisted of many normal topics, like what groceries they needed to buy or whose turn it was to take the kids to school.
“Occasionally, they would talk about the chemotherapy, but the majority of the conversations had were not about cancer,” Mehl said.
Another focus of the study was how these conversations affected the way the couples dealt with life stressors caused by one partner having cancer.
The researchers found that the more often the partner without cancer talked about the disease, the better the breast cancer patient was able to manage stress and depression symptoms because they felt more accepted, Mehl said.
“Partner behavior creates a norm where it’s okay to have cancer,” Mehl said. “This facilitates the coping process for the patient.”
Psychological and physical ailments in breast cancer survivors and their partners are interdependent, according to a study by Chris Segrin, a UA professor and head of the department of communication, and Terry Badger, a UA professor in the College of Nursing. Their results show that distress in one partner increases distress in the other.
Researcher and associate professor in the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences Melissa Curran warns breast cancer patients to choose their partners wisely.
Breast cancer patients in their first marriages reported better health than those who re-married according to Curran’s study.
“It’s the continuity of the first marriage that is so important for women recovering from cancer, and not having your marriage interrupted,” she said.
Another study, led by professor of psychiatry Dr. Karen Weihs, showed that close, meaningful
relationships — like those between marital partners — can help delay the progression of breast cancer.
“When you are in a relationship, you really cope with cancer together,” Mehl said.