Improve Your Mood After A Cancer Diagnosis

How? Work with your partner to change your conversation.

Posted Jul 20, 2018

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

Most cancer patients can remember at least one well-meaning comment from a friend who, attempting to be helpful, sets us into an emotional tailspin instead. My favorite were the people who hadn’t seen me for a while but knew I’d had cancer, who greeted me with, “How are you?” in a tone of pity-surprise-confusion that implied, at least to me, “Oh, you’re still alive, huh?”

These encounters often happened when I was in a happy mood, out doing something enjoyable like shopping for my veggies at the farmer’s market, having forgotten that cancer thing.

A good many people misunderstand cancer and assume it is always fatal, so you end up explaining, clarifying and, worse, remembering, when all you want is to find a good zucchini.

After a cancer diagnosis, most of us long for a return to normal, and UC Riverside psychologist Megan Robbins knows why.  Patients who have substantive conversations about issues other than cancer with their significant others have a higher quality of life than those who focus on the cancer, according to research published in the journal Psycho-Oncology. The more couples talked about things such as ideas, issues, even politics, the better the patient’s sense of wellbeing. By contrast, emotional discussions, such as sharing fears, concerns, or aspirations, lowered the sense of wellbeing. Most significantly, patients reported less depression when talking about things other than cancer.

The Research

Robbins and colleagues studied 52 couples over one weekend, sampling 50 seconds of sound every nine minutes to quantify the topics of discussion.

Couples spoke just under half the time in a 17-hour day. Patients spoke an average of 19,473 words and partners 14,535 words, a day. The bulk of the conversations—97 percent—were about topics other than cancer. The most common topic discussed was people.

Substantive discussions were healthier for patients, but not for their spouses, which seems like a fabulous question for a follow-up study.

 “Our findings suggest it may be fruitful to develop and test interventions that encourage couples to engage in substantive conversations about topics that interest them,” Robbins said. “Interventions could circumvent potential negative side effects, such as distress from discussing cancer, and may have the added positive side effect of strengthening couples’ relationships as they cope with cancer.”