Love Heals: Strong Relationship Can Improve Breast Cancer Survivors’ Health, Lower Stress

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Breast cancer survivors who feel happy and satisfied with their romantic partner may be at a lower risk of developing various health problems, according to a new study out of Ohio State University. That being said, researchers note that it isn’t so much the actual relationships themselves producing this effect, but the stress relief that a supportive partner can foster.

Lower stress levels lead to less inflammation in the body, and keeping inflammation low is very important for breast cancer survivors. Inflammation is beneficial whenever someone is injured or sick in the short-term, but sustained long-term inflammation can cause a host of health issues in cancer survivors, including the return of cancer cells.

“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,” says Rosie Shrout, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral scholar in the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at The Ohio State University, in a release. “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 conducted a second analysis of data originally collected by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a professor of psychiatry and psychology and director of the OSU institute. Shrout currently works as a scientist in professor Kiecolt-Glaser’s lab.

That data, which documented fatigue and immune functions among a group of breast cancer survivors, consisted of 139 women with an average age of 55. All the women filled out a series of surveys and had their blood drawn on three occasions; once within one to three months of first being diagnosed with breast cancer, again six months after their treatment had ended, and one more time 18 months after they had beaten the cancer.

One of those surveys asked the women about their relationships (level of happiness, warmth from their partner, etc). The other surveys focused on the women’s overall mental health and perceived psychological stress. Meanwhile, blood samples were tested for the presence of inflammation proteins typically seen in the body when there is no real need for an immune response. The chronic inflammation caused by these proteins has been linked to numerous health problems, including heart disease, arthritis, frailty, and Alzheimer’s, just to name a few.

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Shrout’s analysis displayed a clear pattern. Women who reported being happy and satisfied with their relationships had lower stress and inflammation levels. The way in which the study was designed also allowed researchers to compare individual women to one another.

“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 notes. “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.”

With these findings in mind, Shrout says that physicians treating recovered breast cancer patients may want to pay closer attention to what’s going on 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 says. “Doing so could promote their health over the long run.”

While this work specifically focused on breast cancer, the study’s authors say a strong, supportive relationship will likely be very helpful for someone battling or recovering from any disease.

It’s also worth mentioning that professor Kiecolt-Glaser has led prior research that found a tumultuous relationship can have a detrimental effect on cancer survivors’ health. So, in these cases, survivors should look to friends and family for support and stress relief.

“Some of the research would suggest it’s better to be alone than in a troubled relationship,” professor Kiecolt-Glaser concludes. “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.”

The study is published in Psychoneuroendocrinology.

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