• "Having a strong support system can have meaningful impacts on the odds of survival after a cancer diagnosis." (AAP)
New research from the US has found that marriage can help cancer patients live longer.
By
Yasmin Noone

12 Apr 2016 - 1:24 PM  UPDATED 12 Apr 2016 - 2:14 PM

Tying the knot could help you to live longer if you ever develop cancer, according to new international research which shows that married male and female cancer patients have lower death rates than their unmarried counterparts.

The large-scale study, conducted by the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, USA, assessed information on nearly 800,000 adults diagnosed with invasive cancer from 2000 to 2009.

The researchers followed the patients’ health closely until 2012 and found that 27 per cent more unmarried men died from cancer than wedded males.

Meanwhile, the death rate for unmarried women was 19 per cent greater than those who were married.

Lead paper co-author, Dr Scarlett Lin Gomez, explains the presence of social support as the main reason for the difference in the survival rates between married and unmarried cancer patients.

“Having a strong support system can have meaningful impacts on the odds of survival after a cancer diagnosis,” says Dr Gomez, a research scientist at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California.

“The findings indicate that physicians and other health professionals who treat unmarried cancer patients should ask if there is someone within their social network available to help them physically and emotionally.”

The researchers studied 10 of the most common cancers and saw the beneficial effects of marriage for all types examined. However, the advantageous effect of being married on survival differed across racial groups.

Having a strong support system can have meaningful impacts on the odds of survival after a cancer diagnosis.

The study found that white adults benefitted the most from being married, while Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders benefitted less.

Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander cancer patients who were born in the United States also experienced a greater benefit than those born outside the country.

“We speculate that foreign-born patients have a stronger social support via family and/or friends, and that this support diminishes as they acculturate to the US, as is the case for US-born individuals,” says paper co-author, Dr Maria Elena Martinez from the University of California San Diego.

The large-scale study, published online in the journal CANCER this week, is one of the first of its size to show that social support and less social isolation could be more important than wealth or socioeconomic status in extending the length of life.

Dr Gomez reasons that support from a spouse or child can often lead to better health behaviours, such as adherence to recommended health screening and treatment.

Family support can promote positive health behaviours by encouraging the cancer patient to do more exercise and have a better diet.

“Social support may also help to buffer stress, which in turn can inhibit tumor progression through immunologic or neuroendocrine processes.”

Chair of Cancer Council Australia’s Supportive Care Committee, Monica Byrnes believes that although the study was American-based, the results translate to an Australian context.

“This study was undertaken in California, which has a very different health system to Australia,” says Ms Byrnes.

Social support may also help to buffer stress, which in turn can inhibit tumor progression through immunologic or neuroendocrine processes. 

“However, the general conclusions in relation to the social benefits of being married when you have cancer could be seen as relevant to Australia.

“We know from prior research that social engagement and having a network of support is likely to lead to better cancer outcomes, which is why Cancer Council encourages anyone impacted by cancer to get the support they need.

“But what this study really highlights is the importance of anyone with cancer getting the emotional, financial and physical support they need.”

Dr Martinez stresses that unmarried cancer patients who develop and maintain strong social networks can possibly lengthen their life.

“Single patients should take advantage of their support networks, even if they do not necessarily have spouses of children to turn to during a cancer diagnosis; this is particularly important for male patients,” she says.

More research is needed to determine how social support can be best provided to married and unmarried cancer patients.

If you, a friend or family member has been impacted by cancer or wants more information about the support services available, contact the Cancer Council Australia by calling 13 11 20.

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