Survivorship Symposium 2017: Almost Half of Partners and Caregivers of Young Breast Cancer Survivors Experience Long-Lasting Anxiety


Key Points

  • In a survey of nearly 300 partners of young breast cancer survivors, 42% reported experiencing anxiety, even several years after their partner’s diagnosis. More than 30% reported relationship concerns, and 29% reported some financial stress.
  • Partners who identified using maladaptive coping strategies, such as emotional withdrawal, denial, blame, and aggression, were more than twice as likely to report experiencing anxiety.
  • Caregivers’ anxiety may have implications for both their own and survivors’ health and quality of life. Future interventions might focus on the development of constructive coping strategies to enhance adjustment and role effectiveness in dealing with the impact of cancer.

While evidence is mounting on the physical and emotional challenges many cancer caregivers experience, few studies have addressed the experience of partners of young adults with cancer. Now, a new study evaluating the psychosocial concerns and mental health in the partners of young survivors of early stage breast has found that more than 42% of partners experience symptoms of anxiety, even several years after their partner’s cancer diagnosis. Maladaptive coping strategies, including emotional withdrawal and aggressive behavior, were strongly associated with higher levels of anxiety, followed by parenting and financial concerns. Interventions focusing on the development of constructive coping strategies are needed to help caregivers deal with the impact of cancer, said the study authors. The study (abstract 184) by Borstelmann et al is being presented at the 2017 Cancer Survivorship Symposium in San Diego, California, January 27-28, 2017.

Study Methodology

The researchers fielded a multicenter online and mail survey to partners of breast cancer survivors who had received a diagnosis at age 40 or younger. To examine how respondents coped with their partner’s diagnosis, the survey included the Brief COPE measurement tool. The survey evaluated psychosocial concerns, including quality of life, coping, social support, financial insecurity, partnership concerns, parenting concerns, anxiety, and depression. The median time of survey completion was about 5 years after their partners’ diagnosis.

Logistic regression was used to explore predictors of anxiety (score > 8 on Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale [HADS]).

Study Findings

Most respondents (284/289) were male, with a median age of 43 years (range 27-65). Respondents were mostly white (93%), working full time (94%), and college educated (78%); 29% reported some financial stress, 74% were parenting children < 18 years, and 32% reported at least a fair amount of relationship concern. 42% (106/250) had anxiety (39/289 respondents [13%] had incomplete/missing HADS). In univariable analyses, lower education, working full time, parenting concerns, insufficient social support and maladaptive coping were associated with anxiety (P < .05). In the multivariable model, only maladaptive coping remained significantly associated with anxiety (P < .01, OR = 2.32, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.22–4.39).

Helping Caregivers Cope With Their Partner’s Cancer

“What we know is that managing cancer care and survivorship as a partner or caregiver can be quite complex and stressful,” said Nancy Borstelmann, MPH, MSW, LICSW, lead author of this study and Director of Social Work at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, during a press briefing announcing the study results. “The evidence is growing on the impact of cancer on the family, but to-date limited research exists that addresses the experience of partners of young adults with cancer. Caregivers’ mental health and how they cope need attention and this not only has implications for their own well-being, but also for survivors’ health and quality of life. We are particularly interested in interventions about how we can focus on identifying family and relationship concerns, providing more education, and enhancing social support, and other more constructive coping strategies to help patients and their partners cope with breast cancer.”

ASCO Expert and moderator of the press briefing, Merry Jennifer Markham, MD, agreed. “The reality is that when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer the caregiving partners often sacrifice their own health and well-being to focus on their loved one. We know that caring for someone with cancer does come with a unique set of concerns and worries and this study helps to highlight those. We need to better understand the specific issues facing caregivers in order to address their anxiety more effectively and find ways to help them cope. When partners of cancer patients take care of themselves, it really does benefit everyone,” said Dr. Markham.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.