September 17, 2009

Marital Separation Impacts Cancer Survival


Individuals who are separated from their spouse at the time of their cancer diagnosis have a lower survival rate than other unmarried patients (including never married, divorced, widowed), according to the results of a study published in Cancer.[1]

Past research has shown that married patients have improved survival over unmarried patients, perhaps because of increased support. In addition, some research has indicated that marital discord may lead to decreased immunity. “Separation” is a unique marital status because it represents a time of uncertainty and abrupt changes. In contrast, individuals who are divorced have most likely adjusted and established more balance than those who are separated.

In the current study, researchers used data from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) registry. The data spanned a period between 1973 and 2004 and included results for 3.79 million patients. The researchers evaluated five- and ten-year survival for all cancer patients by marital status.

The results indicated that five- and ten-year survival rates were the highest for married patients (63.3% and 57.5%, respectively). The five- and ten-year survival rates for separated patients were 45.4% and 36.8%, respectively. Patients who were separated at the time of their cancer diagnosis had the lowest survival among all patients (married and unmarried), followed by widowed, divorced, and never married patients.

The researchers concluded that a separated marital status at the time of a cancer diagnosis is associated with a significant reduction in survival, perhaps because this acutely stressful situation negatively impacts immune functioning.


[1] Sprehn GC, Chambers JE, Saykin AJ, et al. Decreased cancer survival in individuals separated at time of diagnosis: Critical period for cancer pathophysiology? Cancer [early online publication]. August 24, 2009.

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