Healthcare professionals who work with cancer patients have long recognized the benefits of social support. It is not uncommon to see patients who have strong relationships with spouses, family, friends, community or religious groups experience better treatment outcomes than those with limited social interactions.
A study published in the December 12, 2016 issue of the journal Cancer found that socially well-connected patients even had a lower risk of breast cancer recurrence and reduced breast cancer death rates.
Hoping to replicate findings from a previous study conducted a decade ago, the study’s lead author analyzed data collected from more than 9200 women within two years of their breast cancer diagnosis. The data included information about relationships with spouses and friends as well as religious, societal, and community ties.
Study results indicated women with limited social connections had a 43 percent higher risk of breast cancer recurrence than those with strong social networks. They were also 64 percent more likely to die of breast cancer and 69 percent more likely to die of other causes than were participants with a strong social support system.
We should note that the study participants, in large majority, were diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. Early stage breast cancer is much more curable than more advanced diagnoses, so it is unclear if the study’s results would offer the same findings for women with more advanced cancers.
Though the study skewed towards women with early stage breast cancer, it is still beneficial to see the impact that social support can have on outcomes. Even those with limited social connection can strengthen their emotional support network by attending a local cancer support group or joining an online support community. Talking with others who are going through a similar experience allows patients to vent their frustrations, share information on dealing with treatment side effects, talk through difficult situations and even forge new friendships.
Although it is not clear why breast cancer patients with robust social networks fare better than those with limited social interaction, there is a significant relationship between psychosocial factors and survival rates across diagnoses. Studies such as this serve as a reminder that emotional support is vital to good health.
No one should face cancer alone. Ackerman Cancer Center encourages patients who lack a strong social support system to discuss the topic with their physician or cancer care team so that support options may be explored. To view the patient support services and programs offered at Ackerman Cancer Center, please click here.
For more information on cancer support groups, contact Ackerman Cancer Center’s oncology social workers at 904-880-5522.