Objective: Significant others are central to patients' experience and management of their cancer illness. Building on our validation of the Distress Thermometer (DT) for family members, this investigation examines individual and collective distress in a sample of cancer patients and their matched partners, accounting for the aspects of gender and role.Method: Questionnaires including the DT were completed by a heterogeneous sample of 224 couples taking part in a multisite study.Results: Our investigation showed that male patients (34.2%), female patients (31.9%), and male partners (29.1%) exhibited very similar levels of distress, while female partners (50.5%) exhibited much higher levels of distress according to the DT. At the dyad level just over half the total sample contained at least one individual reporting significant levels of distress. Among dyads with at least one distressed person, the proportion of dyads where both individuals reported distress was greatest (23.6%). Gender and role analyses revealed that males and females were not equally distributed among the four categories of dyads (i.e. dyads with no distress; dyads where solely the patient or dyads where solely the partner is distressed; dyads where both are distressed).Conclusion: A remarkable number of dyads reported distress in one or both partners. Diverse patterns of distress within dyads suggest varying risks of psychosocial strain. Screening patients' partners in addition to patients themselves may enable earlier identification of risk settings. The support offered to either member of such dyads should account for their role- and gender-specific needs. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.