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Berkeleyan

Helping partners cope with a loved one’s cancer

| 26 January 2005

The psychology department’s Psychology Clinic is currently offering a counseling service for couples in cases where one partner has been diagnosed with breast or prostate cancer. Counseling sessions focus on helping partners manage intense emotions; maintain intimacy; talk to friends, family, and children; plan for the future; and address related issues.

“Couples who participate will also contribute to our understanding of what processes help couples face challenges that can come with a cancer diagnosis,” says June Gruber, a clinical psychology Ph.D. student who, with fellow intern Sarah Holley, is designing the clinic and recruiting participants.

As part of their predoctoral training in clinical psychology, students work 12 hours a week in the Psychology Clinic, whose specialty clinics typically include one for couples, targeting different concerns each year. This year, in reviewing literature in the field, it became clear that couples dealing with cancer are underserved, Gruber notes. “We’re trying to advance the field,” she says. “We’re particularly interested in addressing not only how to manage difficult emotions and improve effective communication about sensitive issues between the partners, but also the unique challenges that prostate or breast cancer may pose to physical intimacy. That’s an important component of the relationship as well.”

Recent research indicates that when partners dealing with illness are able openly to express emotions such as fear, and to build social support systems, it not only has a positive effect on mental health but may lead to improved health outcomes as well. But, says Gruber, not enough is known about the types of counseling support that best help couples face serious illnesses together. The clinic team hopes, through its work with couples this semester, to shed more light on this area.

Participating couples receive 12 to 15 one-hour sessions on the Berkeley campus — provided by advanced doctoral students trained in treating adults, children, and families from a variety of therapeutic orientations. Supervision is provided by clinical faculty who specialize in couples therapy: Phil Cowan, Carolyn Cowan, and Robert Levenson. The faculty’s research specialties include coping with major family transitions and the study of emotion in long-term marriages. Fees are on a sliding scale (no one turned away for lack of funds), and free parking is provided. Members of the campus community, including faculty and staff as well as the general public, may participate; those dealing with cancers currently in remission are welcome, as are those with active cancers.

For more information on the service or to arrange an initial consultation, call the Psychology Clinic at 642-2055.