It's long been known that married people, especially men, are more likely to survive cancer than singles, but no one knew exactly why. A new study finds it’s mostly the social support of having a spouse that improves our odds.
That doesn’t mean that singles are doomed, said the study’s lead author, Scarlett Lin Gomez, a research scientist at the Cancer Prevention Institute and the Stanford Cancer Institute.
“I’m not saying go out and get married,” Gomez said. “But if you’re not married you should tap into your social networks. If you have children call them.”
The researchers scrutinized the medical records of 785,167 California cancer patients, 386,607 of whom had died:
- Compared with married men with cancer, singles were 27 percent more likely to die during the follow-up period.
- Compared to married women, singles were 19 percent more likely to die.
When the researchers accounted for economic status and insurance in their calculations, they found that married men and women still did better than singles. Single men diagnosed with cancer were 22 percent more likely to die and single women diagnosed with cancer were 15 percent more likely to die than their married counterparts. That suggests it’s the social support patients get from their spouses that makes the difference, Gomez said.
The new findings are “pretty striking,” said Dana Bovbjerg, director of the biobehavioral oncology program at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. “It will be very interesting to see if this sparks more research into what the social side is, especially for men.”
What is known is that “having someone you can confide in can reduce stress,” Bovbjerg said, adding that that doesn’t need to be a spouse. Other important people in your life can fill that role, he added.
As for why women may not benefit as much from marriage, Bovbjerg said that might be because they are more likely than men to have a circle of close friends.
“Men often don’t have a social structure outside of marriage,” he said.
Physicians should learn about their patients' social connections and urge the unmarried ones to reach out to friends and family for physical and emotional help in coping with the disease, Gomez says.
The report was published in the journal Cancer.