NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Cancer patients who are married show higher survival rates than their never-married or divorced counterparts, but it's those who are undergoing a separation at the time of diagnosis who seem to have the poorest survival odds, according to a study published Monday.
Using data on nearly 3.8 million Americans in a national cancer registry, researchers found that married patients had the highest five- and 10-year survival rates, at roughly 63 percent and 57 percent, respectively.
But there were also differences among the unmarried, with patients who were undergoing a separation at the time of diagnosis showing the lowest survival rates.
Of separated cancer patients, 45 percent were alive five years after diagnosis, and 37 percent were alive 10 years out.
After married patients, those who had never been married had the highest long-term survival rates, followed by those who were divorced or widowed.
The findings, published in the online edition of the journal Cancer, add to the understanding of marital status and cancer survival.
A number of studies have found that married patients tend to fare better -- possibly, researchers suspect, due to greater emotional support and more financial security. But these latest findings suggest that unmarried patients are not a uniform group.
"Patients who are going through separation at the time of diagnosis may be a particularly vulnerable population for whom intervention could be prioritized," lead researcher Dr. Gwen C. Sprehn, of Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, noted in a written statement.
People undergoing a separation face changes and uncertainty that may be uniquely stressful, Sprehn and her colleagues explain. One possibility, they speculate, is that this stress compromises immune system function in some patients.
More research is needed to understand the reasons for the findings, according to the researchers.
They point out, however, that there are already interventions that can help cancer patients deal with emotional stress -- and possibly improve their immune function and survival odds.
Some research, for example, has found that patients given brief group counseling tend to have enhanced immune activity and higher long-term survival rates. And one study found that "mindfulness training" seemed to boost patients' immune function.
Patients whose relationships are a source of chronic stress might benefit from interventions like these, according to the researchers.
"Identification of relationship-related stress at time of diagnosis," Sprehn said, "could lead to early interventions which might favorably impact survival."
SOURCE: Cancer, online August 24, 2009.