Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Caregivers May Be Hidden Patients

In today’s Live Smart section of the Albany Times Union there is an article about health risks for cancer caregivers. We’ve been documenting the health risks for female caregivers for some time (MetLife has done a lot of that research) but today’s article discusses the impact of male caregiver stress for men who care for a partner with breast cancer. It’s true, as you’d expect, that there is a health decline for men when their partner is going through diagnosis and treatment but what the new research shows is that there is an ongoing health impact and serious decline for those male caregivers even after the partner’s treatment.

This longitudinal research comes from Ohio State’s Department of Psychology and Psychiatry. The studies document that the male caregivers of a partner with breast cancer experience significantly more stress, abdominal pain, digestive disorders, headache and migraine, coughing, respiratory ills and nausea. And that these, plus guilt and depression, last for years.

The study’s recommendation is to physicians and clinicians reminding them to inquire about the health of caregivers who are accompanying patients.

But really, have you ever heard a caregiver say anything other than, “I’m fine” if they are asked how their health is during a cancer crisis? Even in private or with close friends most caregivers will reply, “I’m not the one with cancer.” But we have intuited, and now we know, that for both women and men who are caregivers their serious health problems can begin while they are in caregiver mode.

This risk is compounded by the practical reality that caregivers do not want to make one more doctor visit during the intensive caregiving months—so their own health risk can be even greater as essential symptoms are ignored.

So what to do? Caregivers pay attention. Friends of caregivers, pay attention and encourage. And patients: even in the midst of your own care be mindful that your caregiver may be at risk and encourage them to get a physical and routine tests. Also give the caregiver private time with the physician so they can talk guilt-free about how they are really feeling.

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