Research concerning distress in couples coping with cancer was integrated using meta-analysis and narrative critical appraisal. Individual levels of distress were determined more by gender than by the role of being the person with cancer versus that person's partner. That is, women reported consistently more distress than men regardless of their role (standardized mean difference = 0.31). The association between patient and partner distress within couples was only moderate (r = .29) but is sufficient to warrant further consideration of the notion that these couples react as an emotional system rather than as individuals. It is noteworthy that this association is not moderated by gender. With a general lack of comparison groups, the question of how much distress can be ascribed to the cancer experience cannot be answered decisively; elevations in distress are probably modest. We critically discuss these results, identify important unanswered questions, and indicate directions for future research. Attention needs to be directed toward factors other than cancer as direct influences of distress in these couples and to mediators and moderators of the cancer experience.
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