Candyce Kroenke, ScD, MPH
Social isolation ups risk of breast cancer death
While health outcomes may depend on individual choices and behaviors, other people also profoundly impact our health and well-being. I examined one aspect of this in a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in which I examined the impact of social relationships and survival after breast cancer diagnosis.
With colleagues from Harvard University, I examined data on more than 2,800 women from the Nurses’ Health Study who were diagnosed with breast cancer between 1992 and 2002. I examined the extent of their social networks prior to diagnosis and their survival rates after breast cancer diagnosis. “Socially isolated” women were defined as those who were not married, had fewer than six friends or relatives, and were not members of either church or community groups. I also looked at whether women had close confidants and how often they communicated with them.
I found that breast cancer patients who have close relationships with family members and friends were more likely to survive their breast cancer than those who do not. Socially isolated women were 66 percent more likely to die from any cause and were as much as five times more likely to die of their breast cancer than women who had 10 or more friends or relatives or six or more children.
It appeared that a key to survival was in beneficial caregiving received from friends, relatives, and adult children who may ensure that these women get proper care and nutrition on a day-to-day basis while coping with the shock of diagnosis and the side effects of treatment. They may be in better shape to talk to clinicians about treatment information, may give patients rides to the pharmacy or to see their doctors, may help ensure adequate nutrition, or remind women to take their medications appropriately.
Though people think of the importance of medical advances in health and well-being, and these are of course important, an implication of these findings is that the help and assistance provided by caring friends, family and neighbors may be the critical support that helps women to survive their breast cancer.
Pictured at Point Reyes, California: Candyce and her husband Scott, a really important member of her support network
This study has also been profiled in: