Two recent news stories from very diverse sources – one from a medical magazine in America and one from a railway toilet in Leeds – have underlined something we’ve been aware of for a very long time: when you get into a fight with breast cancer, you need your mates to back you up.
According to a report published by Cancer, the journal of the American Cancer Society, lonely women who have survived breast cancer are 60% more likely to die of a reoccurrence of cancer than women who are more socially active – and socially isolated women have a 40% greater chance of the condition returning.
Breast cancer survival: stay social, stay healthy
The study, involving nearly 10,000 women for an average of ten and a half years after their diagnosis, found that there were 1,448 reoccurrences of cancer and 1,521 deaths – 990 of which were caused by breast cancer. And those with ‘stagnant social lives’ were at a far greater risk.
By ‘stagnant social lives’, they don’t necessarily mean ‘lonely’: women in long-term live-in relationships were just as likely to be placed in that particular bracket as single women. What they were referring to were women with a low level of close friends and participation in community activities. Simply put: there may be something in the idea that when you’ve put more effort into your social network, you’ve got more reasons to stay alive.
This study has led experts to push doctors to take a patient’s social situation into account when judging their prognosis. As Dr Candyce Kroenke from the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in California pointed out; “(these findings) confirm the generally beneficial influence of women’s social ties on breast cancer recurrence and mortality. However, they also point to complexity, that not all social ties are beneficial and not in all women.”
The writing on the wall
Of course, the idea that emotional support during cancer can be just as important as medical support is not a new one – as one of the UK’s biggest charities has pointed out, and a recent news story from Leeds bears out. A cancer support poster in a railway toilet that was put up five years ago has been gradually covered with messages of support from women to other women to get checked out and stay strong – and the railway company have decided to keep it where it was years after it was due to be taken down.
And the even better news is that the woman in the poster – who was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy in 2004 – is still alive to comment on it. As she said to the BBC; “If we can all support each other, it’s a wonderful thing.”