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Cancer survival and marriage

by Kat Arney | Analysis

2 September 2009

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Does a stable relationship help to improve your chances of surviving cancer?

Does a stable relationship help to improve your chances of surviving cancer?

There’s a common conception that stressful events in a person’s life can cause cancer, although there isn’t a lot of evidence to support this. But can stressful events reduce your chances of surviving the disease?

A recent study published in the medical journal Cancer – and widely reported in the media – has revealed a link between cancer survival rates and marital status at the time of diagnosis.

Interestingly the researchers found that the people in their study who were separated (as opposed to being divorced, widowed or married) at the time of their diagnosis did not seem to do as well as those in the other groups.

The researchers suggest that this may be because of the stress of being separated. But do stressful events really reduce cancer survival, or is this a myth? We asked Martin Ledwick, Head of our Cancer Information Team for his view.

Martin says, “It’s an interesting study and raises some fascinating questions, but it is hard to draw firm conclusions from it. Studies like this will often find an association between a particular factor – like a lifestyle factor – and cancer incidence or survival.

“But what they don’t tell us is what the cause of that association is. A lot more research would need to be done to look into this issue to decide whether there was a true causal link between being separated and surviving cancer, and then what the individual factors were about separation that affected survival.

“The suggestion that it may be connected to stress is also an interesting one. A number of studies have shown that stress may have a negative effect on the immune system. And it would seem to make sense that if our immune system has been suppressed that we may have more difficulty fighting cancer. However, other studies looking specifically at stress and cancer recurrence have had conflicting results.

“Having said all of that, I think most scientists and health professionals would agree that working out strategies to deal with stress have to be a good thing, especially when someone is going through something as stressful as having cancer.”



Sprehn, G. et al.(2009). Decreased cancer survival in individuals separated at time of diagnosis Cancer DOI: 10.1002/cncr.24547