It’s a well-known fact that cancer patients face a mountain of physical and psychological challenges in their treatment and recovery… but less recognized is that those closest to them must often wrestle on their own with a unique set of issues. Spouses, supportive family members and loved ones are often called “the forgotten survivors,” says Michelle M. Bishop, PhD, a research assistant professor at the University of Florida’s Department of Medicine and lead author of a recent study of cancer patient spouses and partners. Dr. Bishop told me more about the difficulties facing partners and loved ones of cancer survivors and offered advice on helping them cope.


The University of Florida study looked at the long-term psychological effects on the partners of blood and bone marrow transplant recipients. Each year, more than 40,000 people worldwide undergo these transplants, and in this country the policy is now to discharge them from the hospital “quicker and sicker” than in the past. This puts an enormous burden on caregivers.

While the world focuses, appropriately enough, on the patients, Dr. Bishop and her colleagues found that partners actually experienced roughly the same rates of clinically significant depressive symptoms as survivors (20% and 22%, respectively), which is a little over three times the depression rate (7.5%) of a comparison group of healthy peers. (Patients were treated an average of seven years before the study began.) In spite of their clear emotional challenges, partners were less likely to receive counseling or medication for depression.

The study also reported that in addition to depression, partners…

  • Reported the same levels of distress and sleep and sexual problems as survivors.
  • Experienced less social support, spiritual well-being and marital satisfaction, and more loneliness than survivors.
  • Were less likely than survivors to report positive personal growth from their encounter with cancer.


In order to summon the strength and energy to care for a loved one, you must also take care of yourself, notes Dr. Bishop. You can’t help someone else if you’re incapacitated yourself.

To care for yourself as the caregiver, Dr. Bishop recommends…

  • Lean on your support network. When people offer to help — whether with grocery shopping, housecleaning or errands — take them up on it. Don’t try to be a hero and do it all yourself. Web sites that can help you organize your support network or keep people in it informed include, and
  • Take care of your own health. In focusing on the needs of a loved one, caregivers tend to neglect themselves. Try to eat right, exercise and get enough sleep.
  • Take breaks. Schedule time for yourself, whether it’s to take a walk in the park or go out to dinner with a friend. Give yourself permission to continue with the activities that bring balance to your life — be it painting, school, a weekly tennis/golf game, etc.
  • Arrange for respite care. When you need to take a breather, you can find respite care in your community at local YMCAs, hospitals and civic associations.

For more resources and information on caregiving, go to the Family Caregiver Alliance (, the Caregiver Action Network ( or the National Alliance for Caregiving (

Though cancer was the focus of this research, we can assume that those who love and care for people with other conditions and illnesses also struggle with these feelings. Emotional and physical stress put extra burdens on our health, so it is important to remember that it’s not just the sick person who needs extra care — those around him/her need it too.

Source: Michelle M. Bishop, PhD, research assistant professor, Division of Hematology/Oncology, University of Florida Department of Medicine, Gainesville, Florida.