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Cancer Patients Who Are Separated When Diagnosed Have Worst Survival Rate

by Lynn Shapiro, Writer | September 28, 2009
Breaking up is
unhealthy to do
Among unmarried cancer patients, those who are separated at the time of diagnosis do not live as long as widowed, divorced, and never married patients.

That is the conclusion of a new study to be published in the Nov. 1, 2009 issue of CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society.

The study authors say the stress associated with marital separation may compromise an individual's immune system and lead to a greater susceptibility to cancer. (Cortisol is the leading hormone implicated in causing stress that overwhelms the immune system.)

Relationships Matter

Prior research has shown that personal relationships have a significant role in physical health--specifically that good relationships are beneficial and poor relationships are deleterious. Also, many studies of cancer prognosis have found that patients who are married live longer than those who are single. However, little information is available regarding differences in survival among the various types of people who are unmarried.

"What is different about our study [is] that we looked at all sorts of unmarried people, including those who were divorced, separated and widowed; and then quantified their survival rates," Gwen Sprehn, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology at the Indiana University School of Medicine tells DOTmed News.

To this end, Sprehn and colleagues analyzed data from the Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) database, a population-based cancer registry in the United States.

Five and 10 Year Survival Rates

The researchers assessed the five- and 10-year survival rates of 3.79 million patients diagnosed with cancer between 1973 and 2004. They found that married patients had the highest five- and 10-year survival rates, at 63.3 percent and 57.5 percent respectively.

At the other end of the spectrum, separation carried the poorest survival outcome. Specifically, the five- and 10-year survival rates for separated patients were 45.4 percent and 36.8 percent.

Survival rates of widowed patients were the next lowest, at 47.2 percent and 40.9 percent for five and 10 years, respectively, for divorced patients, survival rates were 52.4 percent and 45.6 percent during these time periods, and for never married patients, they were 57.3 percent and 51.7 percent.

Sprehn says certain interventions might help patients today. For example, therapy may benefit the immune system and improve survival.

Future Research

She tells Domed while studying marital status in more detail, she will also address differences in physical attributes among cancer patients. For instance, she'll look at biomarkers related to stress, immune system function and cancer pathways in order to determine what factors trigger cancer and undermine a person's defenses against it.

Source: Indiana University School of Medicine