Can Marriage Save You From Cancer?

A version of following piece was originally written for the Aetna Intelihealth website where it was published earlier today. 

Social connectedness again proves important for improved health. A study just released from the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston by my friend Paul Nguyen and colleagues shows major health benefits for married people who develop cancer. For example:

  • People who were married when they were diagnosed with cancer tended to live longer than those who were not married.
  • Married people tended to have their cancers diagnosed earlier. This means the cancers were at stages when treatment was more likely to be successful.
  • Married people were more likely to receive appropriate treatment for their cancers.

These findings were true no matter what the type of cancer. And there was an even more amazing finding — the survival benefits of marriage were stronger than the benefits of chemotherapy!

Perhaps these findings come as no surprise, since the benefits of marriage have been seen for other medical conditions as well (and I have written about it before here…). Take the case of heart disease. One study showed that people who are married when they have heart bypass surgery are twice as likely to survive as unmarried people. And those in happy marriages fared better than those in unhappy marriages. Other studies have shown that married people have lower risk of heart disease overall and tend to come in sooner for evaluation when having a heart attack.

Why does marriage seem to have such a positive effect on health?

There are lots of theories. A spouse can be helpful in countless ways:

  • Helping care for you at times of poor health
  • Helping with medicines
  • Making sure you eat right and stay active
  • Assisting with travel to and from appointments
  • Following up with your care providers
  • Making sure you stick to the treatment plan

Spouses also provide moral support and love and affection, which can be critical during times of illness.

What Changes Can You Make?

While this research focuses on marriage, the benefits may have more to do with having adequate social supports. That social connectedness may lead to improvements in overall health, lower stress and depression, and even lower risk of heart disease.

Even if you are not married, you can make sure you stay connected socially and use the supports around you to help improve your health. Here are some examples:

  • Reach out for help. Being sick is hard. It’s particularly hard to go it alone. Ask for help. Maybe a family member, friend, neighbor or colleague at work can provide some assistance in your time of need.
  • Bring someone with you to your appointments. Even if you are not married or have no significant other, consider bringing someone with you to your appointment. Doctor visits can be overwhelming with so much information packed in. Sometimes you just need another pair of ears to make sure you heard everything correctly. And you may need someone to drive you back and forth, too.
  • Stay connected. Even if you are not well, stay in touch with friends and family. Being connected to others can have a big impact on your overall health.
  • Ask your doctors for help. Sometimes we forget that the medical community has resources to help with social supports. Social workers, home health aides and other services may all be available and may even be covered by insurance.  Ask to meet with someone to find out what is available to you.
  • Get help for depression. Lack of social supports can lead to depression. And depression can have a tremendous negative impact on health. If being sick is hard, being sick and depressed makes it particularly hard to care for yourself, get healthy and stay healthy. If you are depressed, talk to your doctor and get help for depression as soon as possible.

Of course, we can’t just ask all our patients to go out and get married! But as a medical community we do need to pay closer attention to our patients’ social situations. Doctors need to do better at making sure people have adequate social supports to manage their disease. That connectedness can have a huge impact on health.

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