MONDAY, Sept. 27 (HealthDay News) -- A large Danish study hints
at the devastation suffered by men when their wives or girlfriends
are sick: the male partners of women with breast cancer were almost
40 percent more likely than other men to be hospitalized for severe
depression and anxiety.
The overall risk of hospitalization among the men was very
small, and the new study doesn't prove that the women's cancer
directly caused the men to have more psychological problems.
The findings are valuable "because they illustrate in a very
dramatic way just how vulnerable husbands are to mental anguish
when confronted with a seriously ill wife or in the wake of their
death," said Holly G. Prigerson, director of the Center for
Psycho-oncology & Palliative Care Research at Dana-Farber
Cancer Institute in Boston, who was familiar with the study
In the study, researchers tracked 20,538 men who lived in
Denmark from 1994-2006 and had female partners -- wives or live-in
girlfriends -- who developed breast cancer. The study authors, from
Denmark and Japan, report their findings in the Sept. 27 online
edition of the journal
After adjusting their statistics so they wouldn't be thrown off
by factors such as education level, the investigators found that
these men were 39 percent more likely than other men to have been
hospitalized for mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
The risk of hospitalization was higher among those whose
partners had the most advanced cases of breast cancer.
Still, the actual number of hospitalized men was low: just 180
out of 20,538.
The researchers also found that men whose partner died were 3.6
times more likely to be hospitalized than men whose female partner
survived and didn't relapse. Still, the number of these cases was
What's boosting the risk of psychological problems in these men?
The findings suggest that the men may be stressed by factors such
as intense caregiving and the risk of losing their partner, said
psychologist Wendy G. Lichtenthal, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering
Cancer Center in New York City.
The men may be suffering from the pain of loss of the person to
whom they're most attached and "challenges to their sense of
identity as a partner and changes in their daily schedules and
patterns now that their domestic partner is gone," Lichtenthal
Prigerson said there is another factor that may play a role,
called "emotional contagion," which is the spread of a person's
emotions to a significant other. "The wife with breast cancer may
be vulnerable to depression, and this would spread to her
Lichtenthal pointed out that "a study of this magnitude is
significant because it highlights the importance of family-centered
care. Patients' partners should be in the medical team's line of
That's especially important because the partners at greatest
risk for severe depression may avoid care or become overburdened by
other responsibilities, she said. "This is why creating awareness
about the increased risk for severe depression among partners is
For more on caregiving, go to the
Alliance for Caregiving.