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Marital Status Affects Cancer Survival

Patients Who Are Separated at the Time of Cancer Diagnosis Have Poorer Survival Rates, Study Shows

By Kelli Miller Stacy
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Aug. 24, 2009 -- Adults who are told they have cancer while going through a separation from their spouse do not live as long as patients who receive the diagnosis while unmarried.

Researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis analyzed data from more than 3 million cancer patients diagnosed between 1973-2004 to look for trends in cancer survival among those who were separated, divorced, widowed, or never married.

They noted the lowest cancer survival rates among those who were going through a marital separation at the time of diagnosis, followed by those who were widowed, divorced, or never married.

The results are scheduled to appear in the Nov. 1 issue of the journal Cancer. Among them:

Overall 5-year cancer survival rates:

  • Separated patients: 45.4%
  • Widowed patients: 47.2%
  • Divorced patients: 52.4%
  • Never-married patients: 57.3%
  • Married patients: 63.3%

Overall 10-year cancer survival rates:

  • Separated patients: 36.8%
  • Widowed patients: 40.9%
  • Divorced patients: 45.6%
  • Never-married patients: 51.7%
  • Married patients: 57.5%

The findings add credence to previous studies that have shown that married people have more favorable cancer survival rates than unmarried patients. Doctors have known for a while that, in general, patients who are in good relationships tend to have better cancer outcomes. But until now, information has been lacking about the specific survival rate among various types of unmarried patients.

Stress Plays Role

Study authors believe the stress associated with a current marital breakup may weaken the body's immune system, making a person more likely to develop cancer. The theory raises an interesting question: Could stress relief techniques, then, boost cancer survival rates? Lead author Gwen Sprehn, PhD, says it's possible.

"Identification of relationship-related stress at time of diagnosis could lead to early interventions, which might favorably impact survival," Sprehn says in a news release. "Ideally, future research will study marital status in more detail over time and also address individual differences in genetic profile and biomarkers related to stress, immune, and cancer pathways."

SOURCES: Sprehn, G.C. Cancer, published online Aug. 24, 2009. News release, American Cancer Society.

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