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Survival in Women With Breast Cancer Improves With High-Quality Personal Relationships

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Levels of social support impact breast cancer outcomes

In predicting breast cancer survival, the quality of a woman’s social networks appear to be just as important as the size of her networks, according to a report in the current issue of Breast Cancer Research and Treatment.

Previous research has shown that breast cancer survival is better in women with larger social networks (including spouses or partners, female relatives, friends, religious and social ties, and ties to the community through volunteering). This study is among the first to show that, beyond size, the quality of those relationships also is important to survival.

Study participants included 2264 women who were diagnosed with early-stage invasive breast cancer between 1997 and 2000. Participants were all part of the Life After Cancer Epidemiology (LACE) study.

Researchers measured levels of social support from friends and family using a survey that asked women to rate the quality of their relationships within the past week on a 5-point scale. Questions included, “My family has accepted my illness,” “Family communication about my illness is poor,” and “I feel distant from my friends.” After researchers assessed information on each patient’s personal relationships, study participants were characterized as socially isolated (few ties), moderately integrated, or socially integrated (many ties). Based on their survey results, the women were additionally characterized as having high or low levels of social support.

“We found that women with small social networks had a significantly higher risk of mortality than those with large networks,” said Candyce H. Kroenke, ScD, MPH, a research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research and lead author of the study.

Compared with socially integrated women, the study found that socially isolated women were 34% more likely to die of breast cancer or other causes.

Researchers also discovered that degrees of support within relationships were critical risk factors for breast cancer mortality. “Women with small networks and high levels of support were not at greater risk than those with large networks, but those with small networks and low levels of support were,” Kroenke said. In fact, compared with women with small networks and high levels of support, women with small networks and low levels of support were 61% more likely to die of breast cancer and other causes.

“We also found that when family relationships were less supportive, community and religious ties were critical to survival. This suggests that both the quality of relationships, rather than just the size of the network, matters to survival, and that community relationships matter when relationships with friends and family are less supportive,” said Kroenke.

The study suggests that aiding women with breast cancer improve the quality of their relationships could have an effect on breast cancer outcomes, Kroenke noted.

Source: Kaiser Permanente.