from the Patriot Ledger
Social work professor Karen Kayser hoped her research would help couples cope with breast cancer. What she didn’t expect was how useful it would be when she was diagnosed with breast cancer 21/2 years ago.
“I knew how important it was to have a positive outlook and a supportive partner.”Breast cancer, she’d learned, is a “we-disease,” and women and men each coped better when each received support.
“I knew it would be important to talk about my husband’s feelings as well as my own,” she said. “I made a concerted effort to be aware of what he was going through, and he was able to support me.”
In essence, Kayser put into practice what she learned from the clinical trial of her Partners in Coping program, developed to help couples communicate and support each other.
In the three-year trial, 26 couples at Mass General Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston met nine times with an oncology social worker to focus on specific topics, such as balancing the illness with household and family responsibilities, emotional responses to vulnerability, and feelings about sexuality. After six and 18 months, they answered a follow-up questionnaire.
The control group of 26 other couples were referred to a social worker, the more standard approach. The couples ranged in age from late 20s to late 60s, and all the women had cancer that had not spread and had been diagnosed within the past three months.
“The couples in the program tended to do much better coping than the control group,” Kayser said. “They were talking about their stress, empathizing with each other and showing affection. Over and over, people would say, ‘These are things I think but never talk about.’ Coming into a neutral place and having someone facilitate the discussion opened up what was going on.”
The program was especially helpful for younger couples, who in general found the diagnosis more distressing because of their age and the demands of working and raising children, she said.“It’s all about people coping with stress and trauma,” Kayser said. “How can you take something devastating and transform it into something good in the long run?”