When Your Spouse Has Cancer

Are you at greater risk for heart disease?

No one knows how much stress it takes to trigger heart disease or stroke, but a recently published study made me think about my own experience.

Three years ago my husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer. A nine on the Gleason Scale, they told us. That news alone was stressful. Then, in a routine annual chest exam for my ex-smoker husband, some cancer-like stuff was found on his lungs. Yikes, which came first? It doesn’t matter, but since lung cancer is generally thought to be the more aggressive, we switched focus.

So, this week when I read about a new Swedish study that looked at their national cancer registry data and found that partners of cancer patients experienced a 13-29% increase in risk for heart disease and stroke,      I believed it.

Feeling the stress as caregiver

Even though my husband has recovered, my emotional state from that time came rushing back. I had always shoved those feelings away, because after all, I wasn’t the one diagnosed with two cancers within four months of each other.

It had been my job to be supportive — take notes at the physician meetings, cater to his needs – from food choices to catheter assistant. I hadn’t even considered myself a caregiver until a friend mentioned a support group. Even then I was in denial. After all, he wasn’t dying. This wasn’t the long good-bye, or was it? Reading about that study was validating. It was a relief to know that I was part of a bigger group, including Swedes.

For the first time since my husband’s diagnosis, I talked with him about this study and my old feelings. I acknowledged being part of the stressed spousal statistic. I remember feeling like a totally stretched out rubber band on the verge of breaking. During our conversation, my husband validated my stressed status.

Asking for help

At the time of my husband’s treatment, I was already on my own road to heart-healthy wellness. During his treatment and long recovery, I realized that the only way to reduce my stress was to take even better care of myself. No one else was going to ensure my health but me. So, I doubled down and became even more active to help promote my best health possible. I also reached out to our community of friends and family. When they asked what they could do to help, I responded, “Call. Visit. Have us to dinner. Play games. Laugh with us.” And, they did just that.

Reducing stress and anxiety

“Our study shows that preventive efforts aimed at reducing psychological stress and negative risk factors are important for people whose life partner has got cancer,” Jianguang Ji, a researcher from the Centre for Primary Healthcare Research in Malmo, Sweden, said in a university news release. “Previous studies have shown that preventive work can considerably reduce stress and anxiety in close relatives of patients.”

While the study did not find a direct cause-and-effect from a spouse having cancer to getting heart disease, the association of heightened risk and the need for health promoting self-care should be a clear lesson to take to heart.

Do you have a similar story to mine? Please share if you can.

Remember, if I can do it, you can, too!

Susan Levy
Publisher, Well-Fed Heart


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