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Marital status can be an important factor in cancer outcomes

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In a study published in September 2013 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, it was revealed that married people with cancer were 20 percent less likely to die from their disease, compared to people who are separated, divorced, widowed or never married.

Married people in the study fared better than singles no matter what type of cancer. In certain types of tumors — prostate, breast, colorectal, esophageal and head/neck cancers — the survival benefits of marriage were actually larger than those from chemotherapy.

The reasons why are fairly common sense. Spouses encourage their partners to see a doctor at the first sign of a problem, rather than wait until it gets worse. In fact, an analysis of a National Cancer Institute database showed that married people were 17 percent more likely than singles to be diagnosed at an earlier stage. The earlier the diagnosis, the better the outcome.

Married folks are also more likely to get the "definitive" treatment, or therapy most likely to result in a cure. Going through cancer treatment can also be very difficult and emotional, and moral support from the spouse can be essential. In addition, spouses provide many practical services, nursing their partners through therapy, driving them to the hospital, helping with medications and making sure that patients eat well. This support helps patients complete the recommended therapy, rather than skip treatments or drop out early.

It was important to note that men got more of a survival boost from marriage than women, the study says, but the authors did not conclude why. To me, it again is common sense: Women are typically more nurturing and more insistent ... in this case, for a good reason.

The conclusion of the authors was that more support needs to be focused on cancer patients who are single because they are at higher risk of poor outcomes. So it is vitally important that when seeking cancer care, you find a doctor or cancer center that addresses such issues and truly supports patients.

One action that the authors did not mention, and which I think is extremely important, is to support the caregiver, be it spouse, friend or otherwise. Previous studies have shown that often the caregiver has more stress than the patient. Care should be provided to caregivers as well, such as support groups, pastoral care, mind-body (psychological) help, massage therapy or having someone knowledgeable to talk with. Again, seek out medical providers that will provide such support to the caregiver as well as the patient.