There is a wealth of research showing that married people tend to have better survival rates when they encounter illness compared with those who are unmarried or widowed. The correlation between psychological and emotional health and improved immunity is something scientists refer to as “psychoneuroimmunology.” In the case of married patients, they attribute the better health outcomes to a range of influences—including that married people tend to have more financial stability and emotional support, which may positively impact both continuity and quality of treatment. Yet, other studies have also shown that the inverse is true, and that rocky relationships actually correspond with lower success rates in combating disease. Expanding on this research, a new study published in the November 1 issue of the journal Cancer suggests that for people who were once married, being separated at the time of diagnosis strongly impacted survival rates—for the worse.
By analyzing data collected between 1973 and 2004 for 3.79 million cancer patients, researchers found that, 10 years after diagnosis, survival rates for people who were separated at the time of diagnosis was just 64% of that for married patients. A decade after a cancer diagnosis, the survival rate among married patients was 57.5%, while, among separated patients, it was just 36.8%. The dramatic difference led researchers to believe that the severe emotional toll of separation might effectively cripple patients’ immune systems.
The study analyzed data from a range of relationship categories—married, widowed, divorced, separated and never married—and found that, across the board patients who were separated when they first learned they had cancer had the poorest survival rates, followed by those who were widowed, divorced and never married. Married patients had the highest survival rates.
The findings contribute to a growing understanding of just how much stress can negatively impact physical health, and how important it is for physicians and families alike to be aware of a patient’s psychological well being as they wage a physical battle against the disease.