People who are married when they are diagnosed with cancer are more likely to live longer, compared with those who are unmarried. This is according to a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Researchers conducted a retrospective analysis of 734,889 people from the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program who were diagnosed with cancer between 2004 and 2008.

The study focused on the 10 cancers that are the leading cause of deaths in the US:

  • Lung
  • Colorectal
  • Breast
  • Pancreatic
  • Prostate
  • Liver/bile duct
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
  • Head and neck
  • Ovarian, and
  • Esophageal.

The data was adjusted to account for certain demographic factors that may have an effect on health outcome. These included age, sex, race, residence type, education and median household income.

The results of the analysis revealed that patients who were unmarried or widowed were 17% more likely to suffer from metastatic cancer (cancer that has spread beyond its original location), compared with patients who were married.

Additionally, the findings showed that unmarried patients were also 53% less likely to receive the appropriate therapy for their cancer, compared with patients who were married, as they more were likely to be diagnosed with cancer at a later stage.

Ayal Aizer, chief resident of the Harvard Radiation Oncology Program and first author of the paper, says:

Our data suggests that marriage can have a significant health impact for patients with cancer, and this was consistent among every cancer that we reviewed.

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.”

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The researchers hypothesize that social support from spouses may drive prolonged survival in cancer patients who are married, compared with those who are unmarried.

Paul Nguyen, a radiation oncologist from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says that the findings of this study are not an affirmation of marriage, but more a message to anyone who has a friend or 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,” he adds.

“As oncologists, we need to be aware of our patients’ available social supports and encourage them to seek and accept support from friends and family during this potentially difficult time.”

In an editorial linked to the study, David W. Kissane of Monash University in Australia, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, says this study shows that support from loved ones is just as important as chemotherapy in treating cancer.

“[The study authors] stress why medicine ought not to be governed by money but by humanistic, culturally sensitive, and comprehensive care,” he adds.

“Our response must be to develop targeted supportive programs to attend to those most in need – a paradigmatic change in the focus of healing care that truly accompanies the biologic and scientific pursuits of medicine.”