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Strong Social Ties Improve Breast Cancer Survival Rates

A new study shows that a large social network, complete with quality relationships, can significantly improve the odds of beating breast cancer

--by Joann Jovinelly

The Gist

Apparently, the best prescription for breast cancer is a dose of good friendship. At least those are the findings presented in a new study published this month in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment.

In the past, a strong social network filled with caring family members, close friends, and community contacts has been shown to make a positive difference in the lives of those dealing with chronic disease. Being well connected can help lower blood pressure and stress levels, and has even been shown to improve immune system function—both important to note for Americans, who claim to be more socially isolated now than ever before.

While previous research has focused on the importance of the sheer number of people in a breast cancer patient’s social network, this is the first study to prove that the quality of those relationships is just as important for longevity as their quantity.

The new study, which was conducted by a team of Kaiser Permanente scientists, found that “socially isolated women were 34 percent more likely to die from breast cancer or other causes than socially integrated women.” Ultimately, the strength of bonds formed in individual relationships had a greater positive impact than the overall size of the patient’s social circle.

The Expert Take

“Women with small [social] networks and high levels of support were not at greater risk than those with large networks and low levels of support, but those with small networks and low levels of support were,” explains Candyce H. Kroenke, Sc.D., M.P.H., a researcher with the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research and lead author of the study. 

Based on the team’s findings, women with small social networks and less support were 61 percent more likely to die from breast cancer and other causes than those with small networks and more support.

“We found that when family relationships were less supportive, community and religious ties were critical to survival,” Kroenke explains.

Source and Method

Kroenke and her team recruited 2,264 women who were diagnosed with early-stage, invasive breast cancer between 1997 and 2000 and who were also a part of the Life After Cancer Epidemiology (LACE) study for their research group.

To determine the quality of patients’ individual relationships, participants were asked to rate levels of social support from friends, family, and community members on a five-point scale.

The Takeaway

While Facebook and other digital social networks are a fun pastime, only direct involvement in human relationships makes a positive difference in our lives, especially when we are faced with chronic disease. Ultimately, quality relationships with family, friends, and our communities can enrich our lives and keep our bodies as healthy as possible.

Other Research

In 2010, 148 studies and more than 300,000 individuals were examined in a meta-analysis that looked at the relationships between social connectedness and chronic disease. In that analysis, published in PLoS Medicine, people with chronic disease who were actively engaged with family and close friends on a daily basis experienced a “50 percent increased likelihood of survival."

In that study, authors concluded that the “influence of social relationships on the risk of death is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality, such as smoking and alcohol consumption, and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.” Surprisingly, maintaining meaningful and long-lasting friendships may actually be as important as giving up a pack-a-day habit or shedding those extra pounds.

Another study, published in 2010 in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship, noted a “15 to 28 percent reduced risk of death from any cause for those breast cancer patients who engaged in activities outside the home, such as attending community events or religious services.”    

A 2006 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology proves the importance of strong social ties, particularly as they relate to breast cancer survival. In that analysis, women who were socially isolated before their diagnosis had a “subsequent 66 percent increased risk of all-cause mortality and a two-fold increased risk of beast cancer mortality compared with women who were socially integrated.”

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Tags: Latest Studies & Research , Awareness

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.