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Women with good social networks tend to have better breast cancer survival than women who are socially isolated. These results were published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Previous studies have provided some evidence that women with a lack of social support have worse breast cancer survival, but these studies often have been limited by a small number of study subjects and inadequate ability to account for other factors (such as disease severity) that may influence study results.

There also continues to be disagreement about the specific aspect of social support that is most important. Social networks may improve survival through improved access to care; for example, friends and relatives may provide assistance with getting to appointments and taking medication on time. Alternatively, the emotional support provided by friends and relatives may improve survival by reducing stress.

To assess the link between social networks, social support and breast cancer survival, researchers evaluated data from the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study. The researchers assessed 2,835 study participants who were diagnosed with breast cancer between 1992 and 2004. Women were between the ages of 46 and 76 in 1992. A total of 224 of these women died; 107 of the deaths were due to breast cancer.

The researchers collected information about social networks as well as social-emotional support. Social networks were classified on the basis of marital status, sociability (number and frequency of contacts with children, close relatives, and close friends), church group membership, and membership in other community groups. Women were classified as socially isolated if they were not married, had fewer than six close friends or relatives, and were not members of a church or community group.

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Information about social-emotional support was based on whether the woman reported having a confidant, and on how frequently she spoke with this confidant.

  • Women who were the most socially isolated had a two-fold increased risk of dying of breast cancer.
  • When assessing the various components of social isolation, there was no link between survival and marital status or participation in religious or community groups.
  • There was a link, however, between survival and lack of close friends, relatives, or children. Compared to women with the most social ties, risk of death from breast cancer was increased by more than two-fold among women without close relatives, by roughly four-fold among women without close friends, and by more than five-fold among women without living children.
  • The presence of a confidant did not influence survival.

The researchers conclude that women who are not socially isolated appear to have better breast cancer survival, possibly due to beneficial care giving from close friends, relatives, and adult children.

Reference: Kroenke CH, Kubzansky LD, Schernhammer ES et al. Social Networks, Social Support, and Survival After Breast Cancer Diagnosis. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2006;24:1105-1111.

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