The November 1, 2013 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology (Marital Status and Survival in Patients with Cancer, Aizer, A. et al J Clin Oncol, 2013), reports a study by investigators from Harvard University. Using the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) data they examined more than 1.2 million cancer patients diagnosed between 2004 and 2008 to measure the impact of marital status on overall survival. Results reveal a statistically significant impact of marriage on cancer survival. The benefit slightly favored males over female, but remained significant across different diseases and for never married, separated, divorced or widowed. The authors note, “The survival benefit associated with marriage was larger than the published survival benefit of chemotherapy.”
Epidemiologic studies that correlate disease states with socioeconomic status, level of education, geographic location, lifestyle or diet are fraught with confounding variables. Nonetheless, well-done studies can open a wealth of interesting questions regarding non-treatment related aspects of our health and well-being. This study is provocative for it identifies the interaction between marital status and stage at diagnosis, as well as overall survival.
There are many ways one might interpret the findings. The accompanying editorial (Marriage Is as Protective as Chemotherapy in Cancer Care, Kissane, D) notes that non-married status may reflect “reduced adherence to state-of-the-art treatment.” That, we presume, would include such variables as regular physicals, frequency of mammograms, PSA evaluations, willingness to undergo surgery or the use of adjuvant treatments. The role of depression is also noted. While all of these may apply, they have a self-serving ring, whereby good health, it would seem, can only be attributed to good doctoring. Controversies surrounding PSA screening or the impact of “annual physicals” on general health are but a few examples where more may not necessarily be better.
While it may be argued that unmarried individuals fail to obtain adequate medical care, the data may reflect something more profound, the psychoneuroimmunology of cancer survivorship. That is, each patient’s capacity to will-themselves better. The will-to-live is enhanced by close human relationships. We are all witness to patients who survive against all odds. They are usually filled with zeal, willing to go to whatever lengths are required to overcome their illness and most have close interpersonal relationships, nurturing environments, loving families or husbands and wives who dote on them.
Norman Cousins spoke at length about the healing force of one’s emotional and spiritual belief systems in his own battle with ankylosing spondylitis (Anatomy of An Illness, As Perceived by the Patient, 1979). Might his experience reflect a similar dynamic to that described in the current study? My patient Alan Kapuler’s excellent outcome over Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, described in my book (Outliving Cancer, 2013, chapter 12) exemplifies this same mind-over-matter dedication, characteristic of many of our long-term survivors.
I applaud Dr. Aizer and his co- investigators for examining this aspect of cancer survivorship. I am impressed that such a report would find its way onto the pages of the Journal of Clinical Oncology. However, I am less certain that these good outcomes reflect state-of-the-art treatment and more of the opinion that married patients may be part of a happier, healthier, better adjusted and more humanly connected population. Interpersonal relationships are not devices. They cannot be patented or sold. However, as can be seen from this study, they may be among the most powerful interventions at our disposal in the management of advanced cancer.