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Caregivers feel sickness along with cancer patients

Courtesy of MCT

Almost three years have passed since Anita Sherrard, a first-grade teacher at Walnut Creek Elementary School, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 38. After 16 weeks of chemotherapy and a three-stage double mastectomy, she is cancer-free.

Her husband, Troy Sherrard, an architect who helped design the Ohio Union and the RPAC, has been with Anita through it all – through every Friday morning treatment at Riverside Methodist Hospital, every surgery, every routine check-in.

Troy said he had to remove himself emotionally to focus on getting his wife healthy.

“There are certain things we have to deal with in our lives. It was time for us to step up,” he said. “How you handle it is how other people will handle it. If you freak out, they’re going to freak out … The focus was on her. Let’s get her better.”

Troy said his concern during this time was his wife and their four kids, all of whom were under the age of 10. The focus was not on himself, but results from a research study reveal that some of the focus should have been.

The study found that husbands who served as the primary caregivers for their wives with cancer were at a higher risk for adverse health effects due to cancer-related stress. Caregivers are more susceptible to physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches, stomach pain and coughing and might be more vulnerable to infection due to a compromised immune system.

Kristen Carpenter, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology and co-author of the research article, said patients and their spouses are impacted by cancer, but there is not much literature on cancer’s effect on caregivers, particularly males.

“Clinically, caregivers don’t get a lot of attention from the medical team,” Carpenter said. “They’re what we call ‘hidden patients.’ People check in around diagnosis and recurrence, but these events aren’t necessarily the right time to check in.”

Caroline Dorfman, a third-year graduate student in clinical psychology who contributed to the article, said the role of caregivers in cancer survivorship cannot be overstated.

“You can’t go through cancer by yourself,” Dorfman said. “This is a chronic illness for the women, for their families. Low levels of social support lead to poor disease outcomes.”

Thirty two men participated in the study, 16 of whom had wives whose cancer had recurred about eight months before the study and five years after the initial diagnosis. These men were compared to 16 men whose wives’ cancer was similar but had not recurred for an average of six years after the diagnosis.

Carpenter said she and other researchers were open to including other kinds of caregivers, besides male spouses in the study.

“We wanted to study a long-term relationship – live-in boyfriend, live-in girlfriend … gay couple … we would have accepted, it just so happened that we didn’t have them in the study,” Carpenter said.

The men, whose median age was 58 and who had been married an average of 26 years, answered questionnaires about cancer-specific stress and fatigue and other physical symptoms as they interfered with day-to-day functioning. Researchers then studied the ability of participants’ white blood cells to respond to antigens, substances that evoke an immune response.

Males whose wives’ cancer had recurred experienced higher levels of stress, and the higher the stress, the more susceptible for physical symptoms and a compromised immune response.

Results of the study show that spouses whose wives were disease-free for six years had an average stress level of 8.94, compared to a score of 26.25 for spouses whose wives’ cancer had recurred. Carpenter said disease-free spouses are still very stressed.

“A score of 9 is not low. In many cases they’re still as stressed as patients,” she said. “Even when there’s no evidence of cancer, there’s evidence of having cancer, and that’s something (felt) for a long time.”

Carpenter said more research is needed to understand the reasons for poor health outcomes in caregivers, but the importance for caregivers to manage their stress is clear, as uncontrolled stress can interfere with the ability to care for the cancer patient.

Troy Sherrard said he tried to avoid the stress of his wife’s cancer by staying active, keeping his mind off the “doom and gloom” and keeping life as normal as possible. Although he said Anita’s cancer is not something he consciously thinks about daily, something throughout the week brings his attention back to it.

“It definitely has an impact on you,” he said. “Every parent thinks about their kids and seeing them grow up. That’s what’s haunting, because you’re not sure. … The concern is the future, the unknown. But anything in the world is uncertain.”

Troy Sherrard said he and his wife have tried to move on.

“It’s not that it torments us or even her,” he said. “We’re too busy to think about it. Once you have four to five kids, you’re not used to thinking about yourself.”


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