A study was just published in the medical journal Cancer analyzing how well women did after the diagnosis of breast cancer. The researchers were interested in knowing if women who had more social connections with friends, family, and their community had better outcomes.
The results showed convincingly that women with strong social connections had better survival than women who were more isolated or lonely.
40% higher recurrence of breast cancer
The study involved over 9000 women, and they were followed on average for 11 years after their diagnosis. The results showed that women with poor social networks had a 40% higher risk of developing a recurrent cancer.
And the lonelier women had a 60% higher risk of dying from their cancer during the 11-year period, compared with women with strong social ties. This association between social ties and cancer recurrence was especially strong in earlier stage cancers.
A related study was done in rodents and published in 2005. Rats who were kept isolated experienced a higher risk of developing breast cancer, and the cancers they developed were larger than rats who were kept in cages with other animals.
Why are social connections so important
People who develop cancer and have a good support network have someone who will take them to the doctor or treatments, and give direct support for any difficulties than arise during treatment. But the advantage of social ties is more. It appears that the immune system is depressed when people are lonely, and a healthy immune system is important for cancer survival.
Most women do survive breast cancer
These studies do not mean that women who live by themselves or are lonely will have a bad outcome. Most women, lonely or not, do survive breast cancer, especially if diagnosed in the earlier stages. But women with a strong social network have advantages.
What you can do this holiday season
Perhaps paradoxical, but during the holiday season, many people feel more disconnected and alone, especially those with a serious disease. The stress and depression they may naturally experience after their diagnosis may be heightened when everyone around them is in the holiday mood.
During these weeks, remember anyone you know with cancer or a serious illness. Give them a gift that costs nothing. Call, message, or better, visit. Let them talk about their feelings. And while the studies discussed today relate to breast cancer, it is likely that similar results would be found in other types of cancer as well. The immune system is important in all, and helping to connect these individuals can make a big difference.
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