Modern medicine is well aware that emotional health plays a huge role in surviving and recovering from a lot of diseases (1). In fact, one study found that loneliness can impede the long-term survival of breast cancer patients.
Simply put, women without strong social ties and relationships are much more likely to have their cancer return years later than women with friends, stable families, and support networks.
Strong Social Connections Lower Risk of Cancer Relapse
The study reviewed data from almost 10,000 breast cancer patients and found a 40% increased risk of cancer relapse in socially isolated women compared to those with strong social connections.
Isolated and lonely women also had a 60% increased risk of dying from breast cancer as well as a 70% increased risk of dying from any other unrelated cause.
Candyce Kroenke, a lead researcher on the study together with Kaiser Permanente’s Division of Research in Oakland, California (2), said that “It is well established that women generally and those with breast cancer with greater social ties have a lower risk of death overall,”
Kassandra Alcaraz, the strategic director for health equity research at the American Cancer Society also emphasized that people are social animals.
“We were not meant to be isolated, so the benefits we get from relationships with others and being part of a community are not surprising,” Kassandra said. “We know that social relationships are important to general health and well-being.”
Kassandra also notes that socialization is important not just for our mental health.
“Having social ties may provide access to real assistance, like having someone to take you to the doctor or having someone to talk to about your concerns or connecting you with resources that can help you cope with the cancer,” she said.
Still, there are psychological factors as well – socialization helps reduce stress in most people and prevent or limit depressive moods.
“We need to think of health in a more expansive way. Social influences can be just as important as other risk factors, such as obesity and smoking,” Kassandra said.
Of the nearly 10,000 women that were included in the 11-year-long study, 1,400 saw their cancer return, 1,500 died, 1,000 of which – from the reoccurring breast cancer. The study also accounted for race, ethnicity, age, and country.
For example, ties to relatives and friends predicted lower breast cancer deaths for nonwhite women. And marriage predicted lower breast cancer deaths only among older white women. In addition, community ties predicted better outcomes in older white and Asian women.
“Our findings demonstrate the generally beneficial influence of women’s social ties on breast cancer outcomes, including recurrence and breast cancer death,” Kroenke said.
All this isn’t to say that loners are guaranteed to have their cancers relapse and kill them, of course. Those who are strongly introverted and feel better in isolation shouldn’t necessarily force themselves in too many social circumstances. However, even then it’s still important to have a sufficient social structure around you both for practical reasons and for psychological ones.
“Social ties have positive health benefits, and social isolation is detrimental to health,” Kassandra Alcaraz concluded. “And it is not unique to breast cancer or to cancer for that matter.”