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Breast Cancer Diagnosis: Psychological Impact on Family Caregivers

8ccced62d5310e3d_800x800arBy Dr. Susan Partridge – Clinical Psychologist and Head of the Psychology Division at the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology


  • 98% of those with breast cancer can survive if the cancer is detected early. The most common age at which most women are diagnosed with breast cancer is 45­-54. Around 170 women annually in Abu Dhabi are diagnosed with breast cancer, along with a much smaller number of men.

The diagnosis of a life-threatening illness affects not only the patient but also close family members. It causes them to fear the loss of their loved ones while facing concern about the pain and suffering he/she will endure. In addition, there are other problems that come into existence; such as the stress of funding treatment, strength of commitment, readiness to react etc.

A family member’s psychological distress can be as severe as that of the patient. Studies show partners of women with breast cancer (predominantly husbands, but also daughters, friends, and others) find that the degree of psychological distress the partners’ experience is very influenced by the anxiety, depression, fatigue, and symptom distress of the women with breast cancer and that the effects are bidirectional – i.e. how the woman reacts will influence how their family reacts and how the family reacts will impact the woman. Thus, helping family members manage their stress will have a beneficial effect on the patient.

Good communication is an essential part of positive coping. Accepting that some parts of life will carry on as normal whilst others will need to change, is a crucial step in accepting the reality of what is happening. Denial is unhelpful. Being positive whilst supporting each other is the best way forward. Talking about feelings to friends or a counsellor outside the immediate family circle can be valuable.

Unfortunately, the remarkable advances in biomedical care for cancer are often not matched by achievements in providing high-quality care for the psychological and social effects of cancer. Numerous cancer survivors and their caregivers in the US report that cancer care providers did not understand their psychosocial needs, failed to recognize and adequately address depression and other symptoms of stress, were unaware of or did not refer them to available resources, and generally did not consider psychosocial support to be an integral part of quality cancer care.

Whilst psychological care is still not yet integrated into oncology services in the UAE, for reasons ranging from a lack of recognition of need among insurers and providers, to a lack of specialized staff, the psychological services located within private sector clinics can be accessed by both the person with cancer and their family. However, a lot more needs to be done in terms of mental health screening, referral and strategic planning, to make psychosocial support a reality within oncology services themselves. The importance of doing so is highlighted in research suggesting that such support has a beneficial impact on recovery.

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