Feeling isolated may increase cancer risk and severity

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A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences adds to a growing body of research suggesting that loneliness and isolation may impact cancer risk and health outcomes. This latest research, conducted by Gretchen Hermes at Yale University and Martha McClintock at the University of Chicago, analyzed how isolation might affect breast cancer development and severity in rats. The study analyzed breast cancer rates among rats that were raised in tight social networks, against the rates of the disease in those who were isolated shortly after birth. They found that, rats in the isolated group were three times more likely to develop breast cancer tumors, and that their tumors tended to be more aggressive than those among rats in the socialized group.

Though, as of yet there isn’t evidence of a direct causal relationship between increased stress and the development of cancer in humans, these findings underscore the importance of taking all aspects of a patient’s health—mental and physical—into consideration when designing a treatment regime. Previous research suggests that heightened stress levels may possibly impact the progression of cancer by weakening the body’s immune system, and some physicians have speculated that stress could indirectly impact the likelihood of developing cancer by driving people to engage in unhealthy behaviors.

Additionally, while past research has shown that cancer patients with support from spouses tend to have higher survival rates, a study published in November of this year found that patients who were separated at the time of a cancer diagnosis had significantly worse survival rates. Those findings are consistent with other studies showing that cancer patients battling depression tend to have lower survival rates.

And while social support may not be enough to overcome the ravages of disease, research published this past August found that it may improve a patient’s outlook during the battle. A study published in August in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that, while cancer patients whose nurses regularly checked in on them with phone calls didn’t have improved disease outcomes, they did reported much higher quality of life.