Cancer patients may live longer if they are married, with the effect varying by place of birth and race/ethnicity. However, better economic resources are unlikely to be a key driver for this association. These are the findings of two linked studies recently published in the journal Cancer.

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Married cancer patients may have longer survival than those who are unmarried, say researchers.

A combination of an aging population and an increasing number of unmarried individuals in the US means the findings may have important implications for public health, according to the researchers.

This is not the first study to associate marriage with prolonged survival in patients with cancer. A study reported by Medical News Today in 2013, for example, found people who are married at the time of a cancer diagnosis live longer than those who are unmarried.

“Married patients differ from unmarried patients in many ways,” note the researchers of these latest studies, including co-lead researcher Dr. Scarlett Lin Gomez, of the Cancer Prevention Institute of California.

“They are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, such as having better diets, engaging in more physical activity, participating in health-prevention measures like cancer screening, and receiving more aggressive treatment.”

However, they say there is limited data on the mechanisms that drive the association between marriage and cancer survival. With this in mind, they set out to investigate.

Drawing data from the California Cancer Registry, the researchers identified 783,167 individuals who were diagnosed with invasive cancer between 2000-2009.

The marital status, age, sex, address, race/ethnicity, economic status, year of cancer diagnosis and date of treatment initiation were assessed for each patient, and all patients were followed up until 2012.

Compared with cancer patients who were married, those who were unmarried had lower rates of cancer-related death.

Overall, unmarried men had a 27% higher rate of death than married men, while unmarried women had a 19% greater death rate than married women, the researchers found.

The team found that the benefits of marriage for cancer survival varied significantly across racial/ethnic groups. For example, white men and women benefitted most from marriage, while Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders benefitted less.

Furthermore, Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders with cancer who were born in the US experienced a greater benefit from marriage than other racial/ethnic groups that were born outside of the US.

The researchers found that the association between marriage and increased cancer survival could only be partly explained by married individuals having better economic resources, suggesting that other factors – such as social support for cancer patients – are at play.

Commenting on the results, Dr. Gomez says:

While other studies have found similar protective effects associated with being married, ours is the first in a large population-based setting to assess the extent to which economic resources explain these protective effects. Our study provides evidence for social support as a key driver.

Research is needed to understand the specific reasons behind these associations so that future unmarried patients can receive interventions to increase their chances of survival.”

Last October, a study reported by MNT found that married people are more likely to fully recover following heart surgery than unmarried individuals.