Social support matters in cancer survival

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

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study by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana Farber Cancer Institute published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology confirms what primary care doctors already know: marriage is often, but not always, good for your health. The study found that among more than a million people with common cancers such as colon, lung, breast and prostate, those who were married were more likely to be diagnosed early and stick through treatment, and survived longer than their single counterparts. WBUR’s CommonHealth report about the study, “Nagging Wives Save Lives,” emphasized this particular finding: marriage benefits men’s health more than women’s.

Before you rush to call the clergy and hire a caterer, though, let’s dig into the possible implications of this study. What is it about marriage that makes married people with cancer (according to this new study) 20% more likely to survive their cancers?

Here are some things I notice in my own patients:

Married people are more likely to bring someone (their spouse) to a medical appointment when they’re ill. That person can act as advocate, scribe, and a second set of ears.

Married people are more likely to have someone who can take on responsibilities such as childcare, eldercare, bill paying, and home maintenance when they are ill, which relieves stress.

Illness can make people feel isolated and married people often feel less isolated than single people when facing illness.

However, people don’t need to be married in order to have patient advocates, help at home, and social support. Witness my patient G., who just died at home, after a long struggle with metastatic cancer — much longer than her doctors thought possible. G. never married but she had close friends who came with her to doctors’ appointments and chemotherapy sessions, cooked for her, cared for her pets, and supported her in many other ways — as she had always supported them.

I was happy to see, in the reporting, that a lesson the authors took from the JCO study is that single women are more likely to gather the kind of support G. did than single men and that this may explain some of the disparity in health benefit men receive from marriage.

I draw these conclusions from the study:

1. Social support matters in cancer survival. We need to pay extra attention to single men in this regard, but single women and, yes, married people, may get measurable health benefits from the company and assistance of family, friends, and neighbors.

2. Marriage equality is a health issue. Same sex couples should have the same rights to marriage — and its potential health benefits — as heterosexual couples.

3. Single people like my patient G. can live longer and happier lives after a cancer diagnosis. I’m hoping this new study won’t discourage single people but, rather, give all of us a heads up about the powerful medicine that is human connection.

Suzanne Koven is an internal medicine physician and a Boston Globe columnist.  She blogs at In Practice at, where this article originally appeared.