Do High-Quality Personal Relationships Increase Breast Cancer Survival?

A new study published in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment concluded that the quality of a woman’s social network is as important as the size of her network in predicting breast cancer survival.  This builds on previous research that concluded that the larger a woman’s social network the better her chances of surviving breast cancer.

In this study, 2,264 women diagnosed with early-stage, invasive breast cancer between 1997 and 2000 provided information on their personal relationships and were characterized as socially isolated (few ties), moderately integrated, or socially integrated (many ties) by the researchers. They measured levels of social support from families and friends by using a survey that asked women to rate the quality of their relationships on a 5 point scale within the past week. Examples of question included “My family has accepted my illness” and “I feel distant from my friends”.  Results of these questions lead to ratings of women as high or low social support.

Women in the sample were recruited from cancer registries in two states and were enrolled in the study for between 11 and 39 months after diagnosis. After an average of 11 years post diagnosis 410 women had died from all causes and 215 from breast cancer.

Results showed that women with small social networks had a significantly higher risk of mortality than those with large networks. For example, they found that women who were socially isolated had a 34 percent greater chance of dying from breast cancer or other causes than socially integrated women. Researchers also found that levels of social support within relationships were also important for breast cancer mortality. “Women with small networks and high levels of support were not at greater risk than those with large networks,  but those with small networks and low levels of support were.”  The later group were 61% more likely to die from breast cancer and other causes than those with small networks and high levels of support. The researchers further said “We also found that when family relationships were less supportive , community and religious ties were critical to survival. This suggests that  the quality of relationships. rather than just the size of the network, matters to survival, and that community relationships matter when relationships with friends and family are less supportive.”

The researchers

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