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Cancer Medicine — The Impact of Marital Status on Cancer Survival

Family Research Abstract of the Week

World Congress of Families Update, Online!

Cancer Medicine

Despite all the advances in radiation treatment and chemotherapy, one of the best aids to surviving cancer comes not from the oncology clinic but from the wedding chapel. The surprising proof of wedlock's power to improve cancer survival rates appears in a study recently published in Social Science and Medicine by epidemiologist Oystein Kravdal of the University of Oslo. With census data for the entire Norwegian population for the period 1960 through 1991, Kravdal calculates marital differentials in survival from 12 common types of cancer. His calculations reveal "a significant impact of marital status...for all 12 selected sites except uterus cancer and leukemia."

"...It is particularly the never-married who appear to have a disadvantage, but significant effects are also found for the previously married." More precisely, "the excess all-cause mortality among cancer patients...is, on the whole, more than 15% higher for never-married men, never-married women and divorced men, than for the married of the same sex. Other previously married [cancer patients, including divorced women and widowed men and women] have an excess mortality elevated by 7%."

Kravdal stresses "this protective effect of marriage is not due to stage [of the disease], which is controlled for." Then what does account for the "substantial" effects of marriage in predicting cancer survival?

Kravdal conjectures that "marital status is likely to influence life-style.... For example, a spouse may represent an economic advantage, may contribute to the pool of knowledge [about the disease], may help in processing important information [about treatment], and may provide practical assistance and care (e.g., to improve a patient's food intake)."

Elaborating on this theme, the Norwegian scholar suggests, "the married may also tend to avoid unhealthy and risky behavior because of social control within the family and a feeling of responsibility for spouse and children." Likewise, "the emotional rewards from family relationships may be beneficial, and the reactions to changes in marital status such as the death of a spouse may be harmful. Such psychological factors may well influence various important life-style factors, and thus contribute to weaken the patient's physical health."

In any case, Kravdal's work adds to the considerable body of research already showing "marital status [to be] associated with all major causes of death."

(Source: Oystein Kravdal, "The Impact of Marital Status on Cancer Survival," Social Science and Medicine 52[2001]: 357-368.)


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Posted 2001 04 21
2007 12 14 (reformated)