"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", goes the saying. If I claimed that being in a loving relationship could increase your chances of surviving cancer more than chemotherapy does, how much evidence would you say I needed to back that up? How about a study involving almost three-quarters of a million people?
Researchers in the US have just published a study of 735,000 cancer patients that shows people who are married are 20% less likely to die from common types of cancer than those who aren't married. For certain types of cancer, including prostate, breast and bowel, being married reduced people's risk of dying from cancer more than chemotherapy does. That's after taking into account how early the cancer was caught, so it isn't just because having a spouse can help with spotting a suspicious lump or other symptom (although they do that as well). The researchers suggest that the emotional and social support that a partner provides may, for example, help patients stick with often gruelling treatment regimens.
Commenting on the research, leading cancer psychiatrist David Kissane says the figures are "incontrovertible" - impossible to argue with - and have profound implications for cancer care. I have to agree. Healthcare professionals must recognise that a lack of emotional and social support can have a real, negative impact on cancer patients' health and wellbeing. It's a significant issue in the UK as well as the US. Earlier this year Macmillan Cancer Support's Facing the Fight Alone report showed that almost one in four cancer patients in the UK will lack support of family or friends during their treatment and recovery.
Our report, based on a survey of more than 1,700 people living with cancer in the UK, demonstrates some of the ways that not having the support of a loving partner - or other close family or friends - could contribute to a poorer outcome for cancer patients. It showed that more than half of those who are isolated have skipped meals or not eaten properly because of lack of support at home. More than one in six have not been able to collect a prescription for their medication and more than one in 10 have missed a hospital or GP appointment.
As the US researchers say in the write-up of their study, if being in a long-term relationship leads to better survival because of the support that having a partner provides, then we should aggressively promote alternative support mechanisms to those who without it. At Macmillan, we believe no-one should face cancer alone. We support people affected by cancer through our telephone support line, healthcare professionals and website. We have more than 100 information and support centres across the UK that offer face-to-face support and signposting to other services, and work with over 900 independent cancer support groups and organisations across the UK.
But despite this, we just can't be there for everyone that needs us. We need help. Do you know someone affected by cancer who might not have the support of close family or friends? Your help could make all the difference. You don't have to be an expert on cancer; you could just offer them a lift to or from hospital or drop off a hot meal. If you're worried about doing or saying the wrong thing, we've got tips and advice about how to be there for people with cancer on our website. You never know, you might just help save someone's life.
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