Fight This Disease With…Marriage?

senior-couple-at-libraryIllness is never an easy thing to contend with, but support from loved ones can lighten the burden—and maybe even more than that.

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Patients with cancer who were married at the time of diagnosis live markedly longer compared with unmarried patients, U.S. researchers say. In fact for some cancers, being married might be a more potent factor for cancer survival than chemotherapy, the study found.

Married people get diagnosed earlier with cancer, are more likely to get the appropriate treatment, and are less likely to die from the disease than nonmarried people, finds a new Dana-Farber Cancer Institute study. The researchers used a national database to survey nearly 735,000 patients diagnosed with one of 10 different types of cancer and found that those who were married were 20 percent less likely to die of their cancers compared with those who weren’t married.

Patients who were divorced, widowed, or never married were 17 percent more likely to have been diagnosed with disease that had spread to other organs and were 53 percent less likely to receive potentially lifesaving treatments, according to the study published last Monday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

In some cases, the benefit associated with marriage was bigger than the benefit seen from medical treatment.

Lead study author Dr. Ayal Aizer, a chief resident in radiation oncology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, said married patients were also more likely to be diagnosed with earlier-stage disease and much more likely to receive the appropriate therapy.

The study was the first to show a consistent and significant benefit of marriage on survival among each of the 10 leading causes of cancer-related death in the United States — lung, colorectal, breast, pancreatic, prostate, liver/bile duct, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, head and neck, ovarian and esophageal cancer, Aizer said.

For patients with prostate, breast, colorectal, esophageal and head and neck cancers, marriage was associated with a survival increase that was larger than that of standard chemotherapy regimens for those diseases.

The study assessed clinical and demographic data from the National Cancer Institute’s SEER database on 734,889 patients diagnosed from 2004-08.

The analysis, published in The Journal of Clinical Oncology, showed, overall, patients who were married were 17 percent less likely to have metastatic disease when first diagnosed with cancer compared with patients who were not married.

In addition, married patients with non-metastatic disease were 53 percent more likely to receive therapy indicated for their disease compared with unmarried patients and at any given time. Finally, at any given time, a patient who was married was 20 percent more likely to be alive than a patient who was not married, the study said.

“Marriage probably improves outcomes among patients with cancer through increased social support,” Aizer said in a statement.

“Our results suggest that patients who are not married should reach out to friends, cancer support or faith-based groups, and their doctors to obtain adequate social support.”