We can all agree that going through tough times in life can be made easier when you have the moral support of a significant other, friend, or family member. Not surprisingly, this is especially true when facing illness. This applies not only to visiting a friend with the flu—it also comes into play when the stakes are much higher.
In 2013, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston conducted a study to examine the impact of marital status on stage at which disease is diagnosed, use of definitive therapy, and cancer-specific mortality among each of the 10 leading causes of cancer-related death in the United States. The team looked at the records of approximately 700,000 people who were diagnosed with one of the 10 most common fatal forms of cancer between 2004 and 2008. These included lung, colorectal, breast, pancreatic, prostate, liver/bile duct, non-hodgkin’s lymphoma, head and neck, ovarian, and esophageal cancer. The data was adjusted for lifestyle factors that can affect cancer occurrence and survival, such as socioeconomic status, age, sex, race, and education. The results, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, were significant: unmarried patients were at significantly higher risk for metastatic cancer, under-treatment, and death resulting from their cancer. This study highlights the potentially significant impact that social support can have on cancer detection, treatment, and survival.
“It is pretty astonishing,” according to Dr. Paul Nguyen, the study’s senior author. “There’s something about the social support that you get within a marriage that leads to better survival.” He attributes some of the results to the “nag” factor, saying that a significant other is more likely to encourage screening tests. “If you’re on your own, nobody’s going to nag you,” he said, adding, ”This goes beyond just screenings. I’ve definitely taken a lot of patients through treatment where there’s no way they could have made it through without their spouse.”
It’s important to note, however, that married couples aren’t the only ones who can reap these benefits. “We don’t just see our study as an affirmation of marriage,” said Nguyen, “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, helping them navigate their appointments and make it through all their treatments, you can make a real difference to that person’s outcome.”
Maybe that’s why waiting rooms have twice as many chairs as they have patients.