News Headline: Study: Married People Survive Cancer Longer Than Singles
Outlet Full Name: Forbes
Author Name: Alice G. Walton
Falling in line with previous work, a new study suggests that married people have better odds of surviving cancer than single – or widowed, separated, or divorced – folk. Not only were the participants more likely to be diagnosed earlier, when the cancer was more treatable, they were also more likely to get better treatments and to live longer overall. The research, out of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, corroborates previous studies finding that there seems to be a decided health benefit to marriage. Where this benefit stems from is still up for grabs, but there are some good guesses.
The Boston team looked at the records of 734,889 people who were diagnosed with one of the 10 most common fatal forms of cancer between 2004 and 2008. These include lung, colorectal, breast, pancreatic, prostate, liver/bile duct, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, head and neck, ovarian, and esophageal cancer. To adjust for all the lifestyle factors that can affect cancer occurrence and survival, the authors controlled for variables like socioeconomic status, age, sex, race, and education.
Single people, they found, were 17% more likely to be diagnosed with metastatic cancer (cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes) and 53% less likely to receive the best treatment. The trends also seem to extend to divorced, separated, and widowed people. As David W. Kissane, the author of an accompanying editorial, points out, “Strikingly, the benefits of marriage are comparable to or greater than anticancer treatment with chemotherapy.”
One interpretation of the findings is that if you’re married you’ve got a built-in “nag” to get you to appointments – both screenings for earlier diagnosis and to cancer-fighting therapies after the disease has been diagnosed. As study author Paul Nguyen beautifully put it to CNN, “You’re going to nag your wife to go get her mammograms. You’re going to nag your husband to go get his colonoscopy. If you’re on your own, nobody’s going to nag you.”
But study author Ayal Aizer adds that there may be something else, intrinsic in social support of any kind, and perhaps typified in marriage. “We suspect that social support from spouses is what’s driving the striking improvement in survival. Spouses often accompany patients on their visits and make sure they understand the recommendations and complete all their treatments.” There’s more to cancer survival than office visits, and all of these factors may be influenced by the kinds of social support one has.
It’s also possible that the social support marriage provides may help stave off depression and stress, both of which have well documented negative effects on health. Over the last couple of decades, there’s been a shift in the ways in which we think about health, with some authors arguing – based on the literature – that being “healthy” has many more dimensions than we previously thought. Social lives are an integral part of not only mental health but physical health, and studies have shown that beyond helping one’s spouse make it to doctors’ appointments, marriage may have other physiological benefits.
Again, the study results don’t imply that marriage is the only way to reap the rewards of social connections – presumably any tight-knit social network would provide the same kinds of mental and physical health benefits. “Our humanity is relational at its essence—we are tribal people, drawn into connection with one another to share what is most meaningful and fulﬁlling in life,” says Kissane. “Our medicine needs to follow a parallel paradigm: healing care that is both person- and family-centered in its expression.”
And as always, all of these connections are just correlations, and there’s no way to pit marriage against chemotherapy in head-to-head trials. But we can make some pretty good guesses about how these variables all affect one another, and work from there. Doctors should be especially sensitive to their patients’ social support networks, as this may play a large role in how the patient responds to treatment and survives the disease.
“We don’t just see our study as an affirmation of marriage,” added Nguyen, “but rather it should send a message to anyone who has a friend or a loved one with cancer: by being there for that person and helping them navigate their appointments and make it through all their treatments, you can make a real difference to that person’s outcome.”