Men's Psychological Functioning in the Context of Women's Breast Cancer

By Baucom, Donald H.; Kirby, Jennifer S. et al. | Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Men's Psychological Functioning in the Context of Women's Breast Cancer


Baucom, Donald H., Kirby, Jennifer S., Pukay-Martin, Nicole D., Porter, Laura S., Fredman, Steffany J., Gremore, Tina M., Keefe, Francis J., Atkins, David, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy


Previous research indicates that men are affected when their female partners have breast cancer. However, little is known about what predicts men's psychological well-being in this context. The current investigation involved couples in which the woman had early stage breast cancer and explored the degree to which men's positive and negative well-being was related to women's well-being, women's physical symptoms, relationship functioning, and relationship duration. The findings indicate that all of these factors play a role and interact in predicting men's well-being. In particular, when women have a high level of physical symptoms, the typical associations between men's well-being with women's well-being and relationship adjustment no longer persist. Implications for working with couples addressing health problems are provided.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths (American Cancer Society, 2006), affecting millions of women worldwide. Women with breast cancer experience many physical and psychosocial complications as a result of this disease and its treatment, including early menopause, lymphedema, pain, sexual difficulties (Baucom, Porter, Kirby, Cremore, & Keefe, 2006), depression, anxiety, and self-image concerns (Bloom, 2002; Irvine, Brown, Crooks, Roberts, & Browne, 1991). However, the effects of breast cancer are not only negative; a growing body of literature indicates that many women also have positive experiences as a result of breast cancer. For example, they gain greater appreciation for their lives and relationships as a function of a serious illness, often referred to as "posttraumatic growth" or "benefit finding" (Sears, Stanton, & Danoff-Burg, 2003).

Not only does breast cancer affect women's well-being, but it also can impact their male partners/husbands in negative and positive ways as well. For example, some husbands of women with breast cancer experience similar or greater levels of distress as their wives, in the form of anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties, and work problems (Baider, Ever-Hadani, & Goldzweig, 2003; Northouse, Cracchjiolo-Caraway, & Pappas-Appel, 1991). Similar to women, men can have positive experiences when their wives have breast cancer, demonstrating growth and increased perspective on their lives in response to the illness (e.g., Giese-Davis, Hermanson, Koopman, Weibel, & Spiegel, 2000; Weiss, 2002).

These effects on the male partners are important to understand for at least two reasons: (a) to the extent that men are adversely affected by breast cancer, psychological interventions might be needed for the men themselves, individually or as part of the couple, and (b) women's psychological adaptation to breast cancer is significantly related to various aspects of relationship functioning with their partners (e.g., Pistrang & Barker, 1995). For example, women who experience high levels of social support adapt better to their cancer, and women with breast cancer turn to their partners as their major source of support (Sandgren, Mullens, Erickson, Romanek, & McCaul, 2004). Furthermore, sources of support do not appear to be interchangeable; having a supportive relationship with another person does not compensate for a problematic partner relationship (Pistrang & Barker, 1995). Thus, it is critical to understand how men adapt to women's breast cancer in order to assist the men themselves and to help men optimize their support for their female partners.

To better understand how men function within an intimate relationship in which their female partners have breast cancer, it is important to consider key domains from both the general couple and the cancer literatures and explore how various factors interact with each other to predict men's adaptation. First, the general couple literature indicates that individual functioning and relationship functioning are integrally related; thus, an individual's relationship adjustment predicts that same person's individual functioning (Beach & O'Leary, 1993; Karney & Bradbury, 1995). …

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