A fascinating study was just published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, from Harvard University, showing that people who are married and develop cancer tend to have better results than single people.
Let’s look at the research, the possible reasons for the results, and if marriage is necessary for this good effect, or can a relationship without marriage be as helpful?
The research was simple. The records of 734,889 U. S. cancer patients were analyzed, all of whom were diagnosed with one of the ten most common cancers (lung, colorrectal, breast, pancreas, prostate, liver, lymphoma, head/neck, ovarian, and esophageal) between 2004 and 2008.
The researchers looked at how quickly these people were diagnosed with cancer, how well they were treated, and their overall survival. They compared the results of the married people with the people who were never married, separated, divorced, or widowed.
1) Married people had better outcomes for all ten types of cancer.
2) Married people tended to be diagnosed sooner, when their cancers were less advanced. Single people were 17% more likely to have their cancers diagnosed when the tumors had already spread outside of its original location (metastasis).
3) Once diagnosed, married people were 53% more likely to receive more appropriate and better therapy than single people.
4) Regarding overall survival from cancer, marriage seemed to confer more benefits for men than women. Overall, married men had 23% better long-term survival than single men, whereas for women, the benefit was smaller, but still a very significant 16% improved survival.
The researchers believe the reasons married people did better were:
1) Married people were diagnosed sooner probably because they had someone else to “nag” them to get preventative tests (such as mammograms or prostate exams). Singles are more likely to not bother to follow through with exams, and miss doctors visits.
2) A married person who develops a symptom (which might be cancer), is more likely to go to the doctor if someone else is around to watch over them and urge them to be checked.
3) When they are being treated, married people have another set of ears and eyes to pay attention to and understand treatment options, and make sure the medical system is taking care of them properly.
4) Married people have more social, moral, and psychological support so they are more likely to complete what might be uncomfortable and inconvenient treatments. They have someone to drive them to their treatments, take care of them at home, make sure they eat properly and take their medicines, and so forth.
If you are a single person, this study might be depressing, but the senior author, Dr. Paul Nguyen, gives this reassurance for single people: “whatever it is about a marriage that helps people live longer and make it through their cancer, it might very well be that any friend, any loved one can do that for a patient with cancer.”
So probably unmarried people can receive the benefits that married people enjoy as long as they have someone (or more than one person), who will be with them and help them through the difficult periods. This could be a roommate, family member, close friend, or social support group (such as a church or cancer support group).
If you are single, it is important you reach out for help from others. Don’t be shy or afraid, as your survival may depend on that support.
This study is also a wake-up to doctors to be aware of the support network for their single patients, and be especially alert for symptoms of depression. Dr. Gregory Masters, a spokesman for the American Society of Clinical Oncology concludes that “for unmarried patients, the entire caregiver team — nurses, social workers, psychologists — needs to provide and help identify additional sources of social support.”
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