In Sickness and in Health: How Marriage Helps Cancer Patients

May 20, 2015 Updated: May 25, 2015

A growing body of research evidence shows being married greatly increases patients’ chances of being cured of cancer. But while there’s a clear link between marriage status and treatment outcome, the benefit is likely to extend to anyone in a close personal relationship.

The most recent of such work is from doctors and scientists at Harvard University who published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal Cancer. It shows people who are married are less likely to die from head and neck cancer.

These findings are consistent with other research that has found links between marriage and treatment success in a range of cancer types including prostate, uterine, and breast and pancreatic.

What’s the Evidence?

The Harvard study collected data from over 51,000 patients who were diagnosed with a form of head or neck cancer between 2007 and 2010, via the National Cancer Institute’s epidemiology program, SEERS.

While the main focus of the research was marital status, it also looked at other factors such as tumor site, race, income, insurance status, age, and sex. The study authors found married people were 28 percent to 47 percent less likely to present with cancer that had spread to other areas in the body, which is a key determinant in treatment success.

The importance of having a spouse appears to come from his or her ability to detect the early signs of cancer. This may include visual changes in a partner but also audio clues like hoarseness when speaking, difficulty swallowing, or other changes in voice. After picking up these signs, spouses tend to encourage their partners to visit a doctor, which leads to earlier diagnosis and treatment.

The study authors suggest the continuing support provided by spouses also plays a key role in their partners’ treatment success. Married patients were more likely to listen to their doctors’ advice and adhere to their medication schedules.

While the study examines the importance of spousal influence, it doesn’t elaborate on the importance of other factors such as whether the patients were regular smokers, consumed high levels of alcohol, or were at risk of cancer from other causes, such as human papilloma virus (HPV).

It also didn’t analyze the role of other health professionals in the early detection of neck and head cancer. People who have regular medical and dental checkups can also be expected to have their cancers found earlier, and so have a higher rate of treatment success.

Although the Harvard researchers identify limitations in their work, several other studies have demonstrated a similar link between marriage status and cancer treatment outcome.

A study of prostate cancer patients showed married men survived significantly longer after diagnosis and had a lower risk of dying from their cancer than those who were divorced, single, separated, or widowed. Another study that also used the SEERS program found a survival advantage for married women with uterine cancer, compared to unmarried and widowed women.

Learning From Research

As noted above, while all the studies described here looked at people who were formally married, it’s likely the treatment outcomes would be similar for anyone diagnosed with cancer who lives in a committed relationship, whether same-sex, de facto; or who lives with an extended, but close, family unit.

But what about the people who don’t have a significant other with whom they live? Research points to the importance of good surveillance and follow-up of single people, particularly those in high-risk groups such as smokers or heavy drinkers. Routine visits to doctors and dentists may be an extremely effective stand-in.

The Harvard study also highlights the need for targeted social support that can be integrated into the care of cancer patients for the duration of their treatment. Initiatives can and should include regular home visits or calls from health workers, communal accommodation so single people can live together, or cancer patient support groups.

Almost 128,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed this year in Australia alone [and over 1.6 million in the United States].  That number is likely to increase to 150,000 by 2020. Early diagnosis and effective treatment will always be a key element in curing this diseaseno matter who facilitates it.

Nial Wheate is a senior lecturer in pharmaceutics and Parth J. Upadhyay is a master of philosophy candidate at the University of Sydney. This article was originally published on The ConversationRead the original article.