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Being Married May Help Cancer Survival

By John Bonifield CNN | 9/24/2013, 3:54 p.m.
While the study found a strong link, researchers did not show that marriage directly causes better survival among cancer patients. The study examined associations between marital status and cancer outcomes.

Being married may significantly improve the likelihood of surviving cancer, researchers say.

In a new study of more than 700,000 people with diagnoses of the most deadly cancers in the United States, patients who were married were more likely to detect their disease early, receive potentially curable treatments and live longer. The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The researchers observed a 20% reduction in deaths among the patients who were married compared to unmarried patients -- a benefit bigger than several kinds of chemotherapy used for treating cancer.

“It is pretty astonishing,” Dr. Paul Nguyen, the study’s senior author, said. “There’s something about the social support that you get within a marriage that leads to better survival.”

While the study found a strong link, researchers did not show that marriage directly causes better survival among cancer patients. The study examined associations between marital status and cancer outcomes.

The protective benefits of marriage may be due, in part, to spouses who stay on top of their partner’s health, especially their recommended cancer screenings, study authors said.

“You’re going to nag your wife to go get her mammograms. You’re going to nag your husband to go get his colonoscopy,” Nguyen said. “If you’re on your own, nobody’s going to nag you.”

In the study, people who were on their own were 17% more likely to have cancer that had spread beyond its original site.

Unmarried patients in the study were also 53% less likely to receive appropriate therapies. Nguyen, who is a radiation oncologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said spouses can help patients get the treatments they need.

“When I meet somebody by themselves sometimes they can be really overwhelmed by the information,” he said. “All the facts that you need to make your decisions, you don’t even hear those facts when you’re the person. You really need somebody else that’s listening and making those kinds of judgments for you.”

The perks of being married seem to continue as patients undergo their cancer treatments, which can often be painful and difficult to endure, Nguyen said.

“If you’ve got a spouse with you who is kind of helping you at the end of the day, helping you get your other stuff in order and really encouraging you to go to your treatments, I think you’re probably much more likely to complete those treatments and get the benefit of the treatment,” he said. “I’ve definitely taken a lot of patients through treatment where there’s no way they could have made it through without their spouse.”

The results also support findings from a 2005 study showing that older married women with breast cancer had a lower risk of mortality after diagnosis than their unmarried counterparts.

All this might sound like a downer for people who aren’t married, but Nguyen doesn’t see it that way.

“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,” he said.

That may be especially true for men, who seemed to benefit more from marriage in the study than women.

“An unmarried guy might be much more of loner about his healthcare,” Nguyen said.

“Don’t be afraid to bring a buddy. Reach out to people because it could make a big difference.”

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