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Partner’s negative thoughts exacerbate fatigue in patients after cancer treatment

05 September 2018

​​The negative thoughts of the partner of someone who has been treated for cancer can exacerbate fatigue in the patient. It is therefore important to see fatigue as a symptom that affects both partners and aim treatment for fatigue at both patient and partner. These are the conclusions of Fabiola Müller after carrying out PhD research at the University Medical Center Groningen. Müller will be awarded a PhD for her research by the University of Groningen on 11 September.

Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms felt by cancer patients. Many patients experience fatigue long after their treatment has finished, sometimes even for years. This fatigue does not only have a negative effect on their own life, but also on that of their partner. Previous research has shown that this constant fatigue cannot be explained by the disease or the treatment but more likely by psychological and social processes. 

Short daily questionnaire

Müller tried to find out which daily thoughts and partner behaviors  affect fatigue in the patient and put pressure on the relationship. She asked 101 patients with colorectal cancer and their partners to complete short daily questionnaires about their coping with fatigue. 

Negative thoughts

Her research showed that negative thoughts (‘I cannot bear the fatigue any more’) on the part of the patient and the partner exacerbate the patient’s fatigue. The negative thoughts of a partner give rise to negative conversations about fatigue, which make the patient even more fatigued. The way that partners respond to the behaviour of patients has an impact not only on the patients’ fatigue, but also on their relationship satisfaction. Patients who are encouraged to rest by their partner feel more satisfied about the relationship, but also a higher fatigue burden. If the partner stimulates the patient to partake in activities, this has a positive effect on both patient’s fatigue burden and relationship satisfaction.

Recommendations for treatment

Müller believes that it is important to view fatigue as a symptom that affects both partners and to focus on the quality of the couple’s relationship. ‘Treatment to reduce fatigue after cancer should focus on both the patient and the partner and help them to deal with fatigue in their day-to-day lives’, she says. ‘Treatment of this type could involve encouraging couples to think positively, talk to each other more constructively about fatigue and learn to deal with fatigue in their daily life. This can help to reduce fatigue and improve the relationship.’ 

Curriculum Vitae

Fabiola Müller (1987) studied Communication Science and Health Psychology at the University of Twente. She conducted her PhD research at the SHARE research institute as part of the Health Psychology Research programme, and was supervised by Professor Mariët Hagedoorn and Dr Marrit Tuinman. Her research was funded by the Dutch Cancer Society (KWF Kankerbestrijding). Müller intends to continue her research into the well-being of cancer patients in the Quality of Life Office at the University of Sydney, Australia. The title of her thesis is: Cancer-related fatigue in a couple’s context: The role of daily cognitions and partner behaviors.