DEAR DOCTOR K:
I read about a study that said married cancer patients do better than those who aren’t married. Why does marriage have such a positive effect?
You’re probably talking about a study that was published earlier this year in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The study included about 735,000 people diagnosed with 10 different types of cancer. Married men were 23 percent less likely to die of cancer than those who were single, widowed or divorced. For married women, the advantage was 16 percent. For five of the 10 types of cancer, the survival benefits of marriage were stronger than the benefits of chemotherapy.
A spouse can provide such support as:
- Encouraging you to get cancer screening tests that detect cancer early;
- Helping care for you at times of poor health;
- Helping to keep track of medicines;
- Making sure you eat right and stay active;
- Following up with your care providers;
- Making sure you stick to the treatment plan;
- Providing moral support, love and affection.
Even if you are single, you can call on social supports when you are sick:
- Reach out for help. Being sick is hard. Ask friends and family for help when you need it, such as accompanying you to doctors’ appointments.
- Stay in touch with friends and family. Being connected can have a big impact on your overall health.
- Ask your doctors for help. Social workers, home health aides and other services may all be available and may be covered by insurance.
In my opinion, there’s one more reason that married people do better with cancer. I can’t prove it — and I can’t see how anyone could prove it. I think that very sick people can influence when they die. Which, in turn, depends on what they have to live for. If they want to throw in the towel, they can increase the likelihood that they will die soon. And if they are determined to live as long as possible, they can beat the odds.
My wife’s great-aunt was an independent, socially active woman in her 90s. When her husband died, she said that if she ever learned she had a fatal disease, she would seek no treatment except pain relief. Instead, she would promptly “join my hubby.”
When she learned she had advanced stomach cancer, she refused surgery and chose hospice. She invited 15 living relatives to visit her. She kept the names on a list. When we all had arrived, she checked our names off the list, told us she loved us and asked us to say a prayer. She then fell into a deep sleep. The next day she was gone.
My brother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and told he had a year to live. His daughter told him that she and her fiance wanted to wait three years to get married, when they finished school. He told his wife and daughter, “I’ll be there.” He was there, thin as a rail. He danced the first dance with the bride, his smile lighting up the room. A few weeks later, he was gone.
Like my wife’s great-aunt, he had kept a vow to his spouse, had determined the time of his passing and was at peace.