September 25, 2013
News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Study Finds Marriage Boosts Cancer Survival
Married people are more likely to survive cancer, a large new study finds. They also tend to have their cancer diagnosed at earlier stages and are more likely to get appropriate treatment. The study included about 735,000 people diagnosed with cancer. Married men were 23% less likely to die of their disease than those who were single, widowed or divorced. For married women, the advantage was narrower, 16%. Married people were 53% more likely to get appropriate treatment. They were 17% less likely to be diagnosed with cancer that had spread beyond its original site. The study included people with 10 different types of cancer. For 5 types of cancer, being married improved survival more than the known benefit of chemotherapy. Researchers said the study doesn't show that being married actually causes the lower death rates. But they said it shows the importance of social support. This means having someone who nags you to get a colonoscopy, for example. A spouse, or a friend, can also take notes when you discuss treatment options and make sure you get to your appointments. The Journal of Clinical Oncology published the study. HealthDay News and many other news media wrote about it.
By Reena L. Pande, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
What Is the Doctor's Reaction?
Social connectedness again proves important for improved health. A study just released from the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston shows major health benefits for married people with cancer. For example:
- People who were married when they were diagnosed with cancer tended to live longer than those who were not married.
- Married people tended to have their cancers diagnosed earlier. This means the cancers were at stages when treatment was more likely to be successful.
- Married people were more likely to receive appropriate treatment for their cancers.
These findings were true no matter what the type of cancer. And there was an even more amazing finding -- the survival benefits of marriage were stronger than the benefits of chemotherapy!
Perhaps these findings come as no surprise, since the benefits of marriage have been seen for other medical conditions as well. Take the case of heart disease. Studies have shown that people who are married when they have heart bypass surgery are twice as likely to survive as unmarried people. And those in happy marriages fared better than those in unhappy marriages.
Why does marriage seem to have such a positive effect on health? There are lots of theories. A spouse can be helpful in countless ways:
- Helping care for you at times of poor health
- Helping with medicines
- Making sure you eat right and stay active
- Assisting with travel to and from appointments
- Following up with your care providers
- Making sure you stick to the treatment plan
Spouses also provide moral support and love and affection, which can be critical during times of illness.
What Changes Can I Make Now?
While this research focuses on marriage, the benefits may have more to do with having adequate social supports. That social connectedness may lead to improvements in overall health, lower stress and depression, and even lower risk of heart disease.
Even if you are not married, you can make sure you stay connected socially and use the supports around you to help improve your health. Here are some examples:
- Reach out for help. Beingsick is hard. It's particularly hard to go it alone. Ask for help. Maybe a family member, friend, neighbor or colleague at work can provide some assistance in your time of need.
- Bring someone with you to your appointments. Even if you are not married or have no significant other, consider bringing someone with you to your appointment. Doctor visits can be overwhelming with so much information packed in. Sometimes you just need another pair of ears to make sure you heard everything correctly. And you may need someone to drive you back and forth, too.
- Stay connected. Even if you are not well, stay in touch with friends and family. Being connected to others can have a big impact on your overall health.
- Ask your doctors for help. Sometimes we forget that the medical community has resources to help with social supports. Social workers, home health aides and other services may all be available and may even be covered by insurance. Ask to meet with someone to find out what is available to you.
- Get help for depression. Lack of social supports can lead to depression. And depression can have a tremendous negative impact on health. If being sick is hard, being sick and depressed makes it particularly hard to care for yourself, get healthy and stay healthy. If you are depressed, talk to your doctor and get help for depression as soon as possible.
What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
We can't just ask all our patients to go out and get married! But as a medical community we do need to pay closer attention to our patients' social situations. Doctors need to do better at making sure people have adequate social supports to manage their disease. That connectedness can have a huge impact on your health.