People who are married when diagnosed with cancer live longer than those who are not, a recent study suggests.
Married patients also tend to have cancers diagnosed at an earlier stage – when it is often more successfully treated – and receive more appropriate treatment.
"Our data suggests that marriage can have a significant health impact for patients with cancer, and this was consistent among every cancer that we reviewed," said Ayal Aizer, MD MHS, chief resident of the Harvard Radiation Oncology Program and the paper's first author.
"We suspect that social support from spouses is what's driving the striking improvement in survival. Spouses often accompany patients on their visits and make sure they understand the recommendations and complete all their treatments."
Utilising the National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program, the researchers conducted a retrospective analysis of 734,889 people who were diagnosed with cancer between 2004 and 2008.
They focused on the 10 leading causes of cancer deaths in the United States: lung, colorectal, breast, pancreatic, prostate, liver/bile duct, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, head and neck, ovarian, and oesophageal cancer.
They also adjusted the data to account for a number of demographic factors, including age, sex, race, residence type, education and median household income, that could have an effect on the health outcome.
Their analysis found that in comparison with married patients, unmarried cancer patients, including those who were widowed, were 17 percent more likely to have metastatic cancer (cancer that spread beyond its original site) and were 53 percent less likely to receive the appropriate therapy.
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A lump or swelling anywhere on your body needs checking out
AXA’s research found that 79% of people were able to correctly identify breast lumps as a potential indicator of cancer. But a lump or swelling in any part of the body, including the armpit, neck, abdomen, groin or chest area, is worth having checked by a doctor.
Talk about your toilet habits
Diarrhoea or changes in bowel habits are most likely to be caused by a stomach bug or eating something that disagrees with you. But if you’re noticing changes that have lasted more than a few days, for example if your bowel movements are looser for three weeks or more, or you notice any blood when you’ve been to the toilet, then make an appointment to get it checked out.
Sores and ulcers should disappear quickly – investigate them if they don’t
A lot of people get mouth ulcers when their immune system is low or they’re stressed. Generally they’re nothing to worry about and, as the lining of the mouth regenerates itself every couple of weeks, shouldn’t last long. But any ulcer that hasn’t healed after three weeks merits attention from your doctor or dentist. The same goes for any sore or spot that lasts for several weeks without healing – get it checked by a doctor.
Difficult passing urine – not just an inevitable consequence of age
Many men find it more difficult to pass urine as they get older, needing to go more often or urgently or being unable to go when they need to. These problems are usually caused by an enlarged prostate, which is a common condition that is not in itself cause for concern. But occasionally these symptoms can be a sign of prostate cancer – either way, men experiencing these symptoms should see their GP. Similarly, while urinary tract infections are the most likely cause of women having pain or difficulty passing urine, this should pass relatively quickly. If it doesn’t, then any sudden urges to pass urine or the need to go more often should be discussed with your doctor.
Lost weight without dieting?
It’s natural for most people’s weight to fluctuate over time. But if you haven’t instigated any changes in your diet or exercise regime and have obviously lost weight, then talk to your doctor. And if you’re experiencing heavy night sweats you should seek medical advice – these don’t always have a sinister cause, and can be brought about by certain infections or medications, but they’re worth checking.
Coughing up blood needs to be checked out
If you’ve coughed up any blood, you should see your doctor, regardless of the amount of blood or frequency. It can be a sign of lung cancer, so needs to be checked out.
Coughs and sore throats
Most of us will experience coughs or croaky voices at some point, normally when we’ve had a cold. But as with many other changes to your body, anything that hasn’t gone away after three weeks or so should be investigated.
Educate yourself on what to look out for
AXA’s research found women were more likely than men to identify key cancer warning signs, including breast lumps, changes in bowel habits and irregular moles. But for both men and women, ensuring you’re aware of symptoms to keep an eye out for is important. Knowledge is power: understanding what you’re looking for means you can any changes checked out quickly.
Know your own body
AXA’s research found only 6% of men and 3% of women check their bodies daily for anything unusual. But understanding what’s normal for your own body is essential if you’re to spot when anything has changed. If you do notice changes that are persisting for a long time, or causing you pain and discomfort, then see your GP.
Don’t put off seeing the doctor!
A sizeable 61% of people AXA spoke to admitted they’d delayed seeing their doctor when they spotted changes that could be potential flags for cancer. But early detection of any problems can make a huge difference if any treatment is then needed. Similarly, if changes are harmless your doctor will be able to reassure you. Overall, the sooner you go to see your GP, the better.
"We don't just see our study as an affirmation of marriage, but rather it should send a message to anyone who has a friend or a loved one with cancer: by being there for that person and helping them navigate their appointments and make it through all their treatments, you can make a real difference to that person's outcome," said the study's senior author Paul Nguyen, MD, a radiation oncologist at Dana-Farber and Brigham and Women's.
He added: "As oncologists, we need to be aware of our patients' available social supports and encourage them to seek and accept support from friends and family during this potentially difficult time."
The study was carried out by researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women's Hospital and published online by the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
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