APR 13, 2016 6:08 AM PDT

Better Together: Marriage Improves Cancer Survival Odds

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham
Scientists have known that married people tend to have healthier lives and live longer than their unmarried counterparts. This trend seems to also hold true when cancer strikes.
 
Social support is the defining factor in married people's improved cancer survival
A recent study found that single people with cancer had a higher death rate than married people. Even more interesting, the disparity in cancer survival was linked to social and emotional support derived from marriage – not from economic advantages of being married.
 
Using the California cancer registry, the research team identified nearly 800,000 patients with invasive cancer diagnosed between 2000 – 2009. They followed the patients up until 2012, and recorded nearly 400,000 deaths. In addition to cancer-related information, all patients were assessed for marital status, age, sex, address, race/ethnicity, and economic status.
 
The team found that with cancer, married people had significantly lower death rates compared to single people. Unmarried men with cancer had a 27 percent higher death rate than married men, and unmarried women with cancer had a 19 percent higher death rate than married women.
 
Race and ethnicity also influenced survival odds for married people, with white men and women showing more marriage benefits than Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders. And, place of birth also affected the marriage benefits, as married people born in the US experienced greater survival odds than those born outside of the US.
 
 
But the real shock from the study was how little economic factors played in the marriage benefits for cancer patients. While married cancer patients tend to have economic advantages, such as dual incomes and health insurance, the study reported this only accounted for a small part in cancer survival. They suggest, then, that other intrinsic factors related to marriage are involved.
 
“The major driving factor is greater social support, and less social isolation, among married patients,” said Scarlett Gomez, researcher at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, and senior study author. “Social support can translate into tangible or emotional support,” she added.
 
Having a spousal support could encourage better health behaviors, lifestyle changes, and adherence to doctor’s suggestions. And according to the study, these overall changes could truly help married people survive cancer better. And these odds aren’t small either. "The effects that we find were actually quite notable," said Gomez. "They are comparable to some of the more clinical factors we often see that are associated with cancer prognosis, like stage of disease or certain types of treatment."
 
Not surprisingly, cancers with better prognoses, such as breast and prostate, had the greatest marriage-related benefits. “Because of the less aggressive nature of these cancers, there may be more opportunities for the beneficial effects to take place,” Gomez explained.
 
But the benefits of marriage are not evenly distributed between men and women. Aside from cancer survival, men, on average, tend to reap bigger health returns than women.
 
Given the study results, it still doesn’t mean marriage is the one and only ticket to beating cancer. "Certainly, we're not advocating for getting married as a means to improve your outcome," said Gomez. "But single people can help themselves by maintaining stronger social networks and being able to rely on friends and family members for help."
 
Additional sources: MNT, Chicago Tribune, NY Times
About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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