People who are married when diagnosed with cancer live longer than those who are not, report researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women's Hospital. Married patients also tended to have cancers diagnosed at an earlier stage — when it is often more successfully treated — and to receive more appropriate treatment.
The study's findings will be published online by the Journal of Clinical Oncology on Sept. 23.
"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," said Ayal Aizer, MD MHS, chief resident of the Harvard Radiation Oncology Program and the paper's first author. “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.”
Utilizing the National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program, the researchers conducted a retrospective analysis of 734,889 people who were diagnosed with cancer between 2004 and 2008. They focused on the ten leading causes of cancer deaths in the United States: lung, colorectal, breast, pancreatic, prostate, liver/bile duct, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, head and neck, ovarian, and esophageal cancer. They also adjusted the data to account for a number of demographic factors, including age, sex, race, residence type, education and median household income, that could have an effect on the health outcome.
Their analysis found that in comparison with married patients, unmarried cancer patients, including those who were widowed, were 17 percent more likely to have metastatic cancer (cancer that spread beyond its original site) and were 53 percent less likely to receive the appropriate therapy.
"We don't just see our study as an affirmation of marriage, but rather it should send a message to anyone who has a friend or a 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," said the study's senior author Paul Nguyen, MD, a radiation oncologist at Dana-Farber and Brigham and Women's. "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 addition to Aizer and Nguyen, the study's other authors are Ming-Hui Chen, MD, of the University of Connecticut, Storrs; Mallika Mendu, MD, and Sophia Koo, MD, of Brigham and Women's; Ellen McCarthy, PhD, Powell Graham and Tyler Wilhite, of Harvard Medical School; Toni Choueiri, MD, and Neil Martin, MD, Dana-Farber and Brigham and Women's; Jim Hu MD MPH, of the University of California, Los Angeles; and Karen Hoffman MD MPH MHSc, of MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston.
The study was funded in part by Heritage Medical Research Institute/Prostate Cancer Foundation Young Investigator Award, JCRT Foundation Grant, Fitz's Cancer Warriors, David and Cynthia Chapin, and a grant from an anonymous family foundation.