Date of Award

Summer 7-24-2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

PhD Family Psychology


Professional Psychology and Family Therapy


Robert Massey, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Ben Beitin, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Sharon Davis Massey, Ph.D.


Psychology, Cancer, Breast cancer, Cancer survivor couples


The purpose of this study was to explore the lived experiences of couples following breast cancer and their perceptions of growth as a result of their experiences with the illness. Qualitative methodology, specifically a phenomenological research design, was utilized to gain understanding of couples’ perceptions and interpretations of growth, particularly within the contexts of couple relationships. Ten survivor couples participated in the study. Study data was collected through semistructured interviews with the couple jointly. Genograms were constructed for each couple and were utilized to track couples’ experiences with illness, care-taking, and growth following adverse or traumatic situations. Data analysis revealed in the emergence of thirteen primary themes. The results indicated that both female and male participants’ initial reactions to the breast cancer diagnosis were primarily characterized by fear, shock, and unpreparedness. Couples experienced the impact of the illness within several areas of their relationships including physical functioning, emotional climate, sexual intimacy, and relational closeness. Several of these disruptions were compounded by difficulties related to partners’ abilities to establish mutually comfortable ways of communicating about emotions, which resulted in engagement in ineffective and unhelpful behaviors and contributed to experiencing emotional distance within the relationship. Despite this, couples were able to communicate effectively with one another in other ways and employ dyadic coping strategies that aided in their adjustment to the illness. All ten couples identified that their primary resource for support was their own relationship, and intimate acts of care-taking, along with a shared perception that challenges could be overcome together, were perceived as significant factors contributing to mutual coping. All ten couples perceived both positive change and growth as a result of their shared experiences. Areas of change included prioritizing leisure/time together and healthy living habits, and increased open emotional communication. Growth was described in terms of increased emotional closeness, relational trust and confidence, appreciation for life and awareness of mortality, gratitude, perspective of what is important, and spiritual development. Couples mutually perceived survivorship and growth as active processes that involved learning. Descriptions of growth illustrated the rebuilding of altered assumptions and perceptions of transformation beyond the pre-diagnosis ways of living and relating. Findings from this study expand the existing literature on couples' experiences with breast cancer and contribute a relational perspective to the concept of posttraumatic growth. In addition, it is essentially the first study to explore couples’ shared experiences of relational growth following breast cancer.

Included in

Psychology Commons