Breast cancer survivors who are in satisfying romantic relationships may have a reduced risk for a host of health problems, according to a new study published online in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
Importantly, however, the research suggests that the relationship itself wasn’t the cure-all. Rather, women who reported being satisfied in their relationships also reported lower psychological stress, and these two factors were associated with lower markers for inflammation in their blood.
Keeping inflammation low is the key to good health in general, and especially in breast cancer survivors, researchers say. When we’re sick or injured, inflammation promotes healing, but elevated inflammation over time increases survivors’ risk for cancer recurrence and other illnesses.
“It’s important for survivors, when they’re going through this uncertain time, to feel comfortable with their partners and feel cared for and understood, and also for their partners to feel comfortable and share their own concerns,” said Dr. Rosie Shrout, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral scholar in the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at The Ohio State University.
“Our findings suggest that this close partnership can boost their bond as a couple and also promote survivors’ health even during a very stressful time, when they’re dealing with cancer.”
Shrout is a relationship researcher working in the lab of Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology and director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University.
For the study, Shrout conducted a secondary analysis of data from a previous Kiecolt-Glaser study that looked at fatigue and immune function in breast cancer survivors.
A total of 139 women (average age 55) completed self-report questionnaires and provided blood samples at three visits: upon recruitment within one to three months of their cancer diagnosis and during two follow-up visits six and 18 months after their cancer treatment ended.
One survey assessed relationship satisfaction by asking participants to report their degree of happiness, the level of warmth and comfort they felt with their partner, how rewarding the relationship was and their overall satisfaction. The other questionnaire looked at their level of perceived psychological stress during the previous week.
The team analyzed the blood samples for levels of four proteins that promote inflammation throughout the body even when there is no need for an immune response. This kind of chronic inflammation is associated with numerous health problems, including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as the frailty and functional decline that can come with aging.
The results showed a clear trend in the women as a group: The more satisfied they felt about their romantic relationships, the lower their perceived stress and the lower their inflammation.
The study was unique as it allowed researchers to compare the group of women to each other and also gauge changes in each woman individually.
“This gave us a unique perspective: We found that when a woman was particularly satisfied with her relationship, she had lower stress and lower inflammation than usual, lower than her own average,” Shrout said.
“At a specific visit, if she was satisfied with her partner, her own inflammation was lower at that visit than at a different visit when she was less satisfied.”
Shrout noted the study suggests that health professionals who care for breast cancer patients might want to keep an eye out for potential signs that their patients are struggling at home.
“The research shows the importance of fostering survivors’ relationships. Some survivors might need help connecting with their partners during a stressful time, so that means it’s important for part of their screening and treatment to take the relationship into account and include a reference to couples counseling when appropriate,” she said. “Doing so could promote their health over the long run.”
Though this study focused on breast cancer survivors, Shrout said a strong romantic relationship would likely be helpful to anyone navigating the uncertainty associated with other serious illnesses by lowering their stress.
At the same time, previous research led by Kiecolt-Glaser, senior author of this study, has shown that marital conflict can have detrimental effects on health. And breast cancer survivors who are single may benefit from drawing on a network of family and friends for support.
“Some of the research would suggest it’s better to be alone than in a troubled relationship,” Kiecolt-Glaser said. “A good marriage offers good support, but the broader message for a breast cancer survivor who is not married is to seek support in other relationships.
“In general, one thing that happens when people are stressed is we tend to isolate ourselves, so seeking support when we’re stressed is one of the more beneficial things that people can do.”
Source: Ohio State University