Marriage May Be Better Than Chemotherapy

Cancer patients who are married fare better than unmarried patients

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Is marriage good for your health? If you’re diagnosed with cancer, does marriage help? A new study addressed these questions, and the news may be inspiring for married folks.

Being married at the time of a cancer diagnosis improved an individual’s overall outlook, this new study found.

The study revealed that married folks tended to be diagnosed with cancer at earlier stages, to get the most appropriate treatment and to live longer.

In terms of overall outcomes, marriage may even be better than chemotherapy in helping people thrive after a cancer diagnosis.

The authors of this study suggested that additional social support for unmarried cancer patients may improve survival.

"Seek out social support as you travel through cancer treatment."

Ayal Aizer, MD, MHS, a chief resident in radiation oncology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, was the study’s lead author.

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

The social support that marriage provides encompasses everything from help with decision-making and getting to and from appointments to coping with the mental, emotional and physical burdens of cancer.

Previous studies have looked at how marriage affects a cancer patient’s journey, but the results have been conflicting. Some research has suggested that marriage helps male cancer patients more than female patients.

For this study, the researchers used Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) data to identify 1,260,898 cancer patients treated between 2004 and 2008. 

The researchers looked at patients with the 10 leading cancer types: lung, colorectal, breast, pancreatic, prostate, liver/bile duct, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, head and neck, ovarian and esophageal cancer.

After excluding patients with metastatic or ill-defined disease, 562,758 patients were included in the analysis and followed for a median of three years.

Compared to unmarried individuals, patients who were married at the time of their cancer diagnosis were:

  • 17 percent less likely to have metastatic disease that had spread to other areas of the body
  • 53 percent more likely to receive recommended treatments for their individual cancer type
  • 20 percent more likely to be alive at any given time

The authors noted longer follow-up is needed to determine specific survival data.

To confirm that these results related only to marriage status, the researchers adjusted for other data, including age, gender, education and residential area (urban versus rural).

“For prostate, breast, colorectal, esophageal and head/neck cancers, the survival benefit associated with marriage was larger than the published survival benefit of chemotherapy,” the authors wrote.

Gregory Masters, MD, ASCO Cancer Communications Committee Chair-Elect and patient cancer care expert, said in a statement, “We have made substantial scientific progress in cancer treatment, but these gains need to be framed around the whole patient, their access to care and support systems.

"This study shows that spousal support is critically important in improving outcomes for patients with cancer. But for unmarried patients, the entire caregiver team — nurses, social workers, psychologists — needs to provide and help identify additional sources of social support,” Dr. Masters said.

This study was published September 23 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The research was supported by a Heritage Medical Research Institute/Prostate Cancer Foundation Young Investigator Award, JCRT Foundation Grant, Fitz’s Cancer Warriors, David and Cynthia Chapin and a grant from an anonymous family foundation.

One of the authors reported financial relationships with Ferring Pharmaceuticals, Medivation and Varian Medical Systems.

Review Date: 
September 23, 2013
Last Updated:
September 24, 2013