Couples May Need Help When One Is Battling Serious Illness

By Munz, Michele | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Couples May Need Help When One Is Battling Serious Illness


Munz, Michele, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


When Tony Akin's wife, Jane, was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, he went into "survival mode," he said, as his wife had immediate surgery to remove the lump, more than six weeks of near- daily radiation treatments and three weeks of recovery at home.

It wasn't until afterward he realized how petrified he was.

"She had cancer, and if it wanted to kill her, there was nothing I could to do stop it," said Akin, 48, of Maryville. "It scared me to death."

Meanwhile, Jane Akin struggled with having to get CT scans and mammograms every six months. She's one to check things off her list, and the ongoing tests brought uncertainty, like something was hanging over her head.

But the couple couldn't talk about this to each other. She didn't want to add to his fears. He didn't want to burden her with more worry.

Jane Akin's oncologist urged her to see a counselor, a free service for patients at the Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis. The counselor eventually suggested, "Would your husband like to come in and talk?"

Facing a serious illness like cancer can be stressful for an individual, but it also can take a toll on relationships, especially with a spouse or partner. They can struggle with differences in how each copes, changing roles, loss of intimacy, upheaval of long-term plans and financial struggles. But help for couples is easier to get now.

Because a patient's emotional well-being can play an important role in improving health outcomes, counseling services involving significant others are becoming an integral part of care.

"For me, no matter what, I knew he was going to be right there next to me," Jane Akin said, "And that was huge."

REDUCING STRESS

Jane Akin recently had a double mastectomy because of a painful and disfiguring side effect of her radiation, and the couple continue to visit a counselor on their own.

"It's as an important part of your treatment as chemo or radiation," Tony Akin said.

Doctors agree. Research shows that identifying emotional problems and intervening early reduces overall stress, improves quality of life and may increase longevity for those facing a serious illness.

In 2008, the Institute of Medicine recommended screening every person with cancer for distress, and including emotional support in all comprehensive cancer care programs. New standards from the American College of Surgeon's Commission on Cancer require that all patients seen in an accredited cancer center be screened for distress beginning in 2015.

"We start with stress screening as a way to assess for distress at different points throughout treatment, so hopefully we can be aware when people need our support, and we can help patients understand that help is available," said Patricia Fank, a psychologist at the Simmons Cancer Institute at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield, which has provided counseling services for the past five years.

Treatment often extends to the spouse or partner, said Chad Noggle, director of family and support services at Simmons.

"When you are talking about cancer, the physical impact or the biological aspects are confined to one person, but when you are talking about the psychosocial impact, it can affect the patient and their family and their relationships, most importantly with their significant other," Noggle said. "So our treatment is focused broadly."

Teresa Deshields, manager of counseling services at Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis which has offered free counseling services to patients and their partners since 2003 said spouses and partners can be just as distressed as patients. …

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