In Brief

It looks like the old joke may be true: If you lower your expectations, you won't be disappointed.

That long-held belief gels with a finding that cancer patients downgrade their expectations of life to match reality, and are consequently no more anxious or depressed than the general population.

In the study, Karin Nordin, PhD, of Uppsala University in Sweden, and four colleagues recruited 85 newly diagnosed gastrointestinal cancer patients and 26 spouses of cancer patients to investigate their life satisfaction. The team measured satisfaction by comparing the importance of certain life values--such as harmony, positive relations and mobility--with how many of these values participants felt they had achieved.

Participants filled out two questionnaires. The researchers gave the first to all participants at the study's start, just after they received their diagnoses; one month later, researchers administered another questionnaire to the 33 patients whose disease had advanced in that time, as well as one for their spouses. Two months later they gave a second questionnaire to the 52 patients who were potentially cured. (All of the spouses involved in the study were married to non-cured patients.)

Both patients and spouses said they had achieved the most improvement in the category of "communication" and the least in "religion." Patients rated "communication" most important, while spouses said that "positive relations" were most important to them. Both groups agreed that "religion" was least important.

At the end of the study, the number of patients suffering from anxiety and depression decreased in both the potentially cured and non-cured groups, while the number of anxious or depressed spouses did not decrease.

Patients also had a smaller gap between life values and their attainment of those values at the end of the study than their spouses. "This suggests," the authors say, "that patients, in contrast to their spouses, strive to achieve small discrepancies...as part of their adjustment to serious diseases."

The research appeared in the November/December 2001 issue of the journal Psycho-Oncology (Vol. 10, No. 6).

--M. GREENGRASS