Staying in a good marriage relationship is one of the best “medicine” to people’s health. Compared to patients without spouses, patients with a loved and caring partner tend to get an early tumor detection and timely treatment and are less likely to die from the disease.
The spouse of a cancer patient is commonly referred to as “caregiver” which is a precise term under the context of cancer treatment. However, it potentially implies the burden to the spouses. Couples are no longer equal and the spouses have to take responsibility to care for their partners.
A recent study revealed that labelling the partners of cancer patients as “caregivers” may harm the health and well-being of the couple, as well as their dyadic relationship. It was published in the journal Current Oncology.
The researchers collected and analyzed the term usage “cancer, patient, spouse, and caregiver” versus “cancer, patients, spouse and partner” in the papers listed in PubMed over the past 30 years, and found that there was a rapid rise in using the term “caregiver” rather than “partner” in these papers.
Before the study, some researchers had already expressed the concern of using the term “caregiver” for the partner of a cancer patient and proposed an alternative label “co-survivor”, which shows the equality and similarity for dyad. However, the term “co-survivor” hasn’t gained great popularity, because cancer patients feel uncomfortable being labelled as survivor, so do their partners, and it reminds them of being in a life-threatening state.
The labelling of “patient and caregiver” for cancer patients and their partners might potentially do harm to sexual intimacy between the couple. Caregivers, if not referred to as partners, can also include healthcare providers, and in this case, caregivers shall not be sexual with patients. This can negatively imply sexual relationship. Besides. some people hold an assumption that the chronically ill and disabled do not have sexual relationships. Over two-thirds of all patients with advanced cancer reported that they are not feeling sexually attractive when identified as “patient and spouse caregiver relationship”.
The authors of the study discussed the strategies to support partnership. Couples may have different coping strategies towards cancer diagnosis, thus causing conflicts in dyad. Timely education at the time of cancer diagnosis could help couples understand the possible conflicts incurring from different coping strategies, which can serve as a buffer to help reduce the stress of both cancer patients and their partners. Cancer centers are advised to offer a simple introductory seminar to the newly diagnosed patients and their partners and educate them on how to deal with the conflicts. Physicians shall ask the patients and partners which labels they prefer for their spouses to help remain their supportive relationship and achieve better survival benefits.
The authors of the study also advocate cancer centers to do more to help couples stay as couples, and the “Exercise Together” program can be induced into cancer treatment. Currently, cancer centers are increasingly aware of the benefits of exercise towards the long-term survival in cancer treatment. However, they usually prescribe individual exercise programs for the patients alone. The researchers of the study advocates “Exercise Together” program in which cancer patients and their partners become fitness trainers for each other. This program can help affirm the responsibility and support of both patients and their partners and enhance their co-supportive partnership.
The researchers of the study concluded that the term “caregiver” has implicit costs and “partner” is a better option. Although their spouses will actually become caregivers when cancer patients get very sick, keeping couples co-supportive with careful labelling is meaningful because strong dyads mean better health outcomes overall.