A satisfying romantic relationship may improve breast cancer survivors' health

June 14, 2020

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A satisfying romantic relationship may improve breast cancer survivors' health

Breast cancer survivors in romantic relationships who feel happy and satisfied with their partners may be at lower risk for a host of health problems, new research suggests.

The findings suggest that the relationship itself wasn’t the cure-all, however. Women who were 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 at bay is the key to promoting health generally, researchers say. When we’re sick or injured, inflammation promotes healing. But elevated inflammation over time increases survivors’ risk for a whole range of illnesses.

What the  researchers say: “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 the lead author.

“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.”

The research is published online in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

For this work the researchers conducted a secondary analysis of data from previous studies assessing fatigue and immune function in breast cancer survivors.

The 139 women with an average age of 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 the women 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 was used to evaluate their level of perceived psychological stress over the previous week.

Researchers 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 linked to numerous health problems, including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as the frailty and functional decline that can accompany aging.

The findings 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 design of the study 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,” The lead author added. “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.”

The study suggests that health professionals 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” said the researchers. “Some patients 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,” Doing so, as other studies have shown, could promote their health over the long run.

Though the findings in this study related to breast cancer survivors, the researchers said a strong romantic relationship would likely be helpful to people navigating the uncertainty associated with other serious illnesses by lowering their stress.

There are more sides to the relationship story: Previous work has shown that marital conflict can have detrimental effects on health.

“Some of the research would suggest it’s better to be alone than in a troubled relationship,” the lead author 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.

So, what? In general, one thing that happens when people are stressed is they tend to isolate themselves, so seeking support when you’re stressed is one of the more beneficial things that you can do—even if you’re not ill.

This study, like so many others, shows the beneficial effects that supportive relationships have for the whole human organism. On an obvious level we know that the stress hormone cortisol can put an intolerable strain on the immune system. We also know that oxytocin—the bonding and trust-promoting neurochemical counteracts the effects of stress.

Stress—whether from marital discord, childhood abuse or neglect, racism, inequality, joblessness, overwork or loneliness—is a killer and can begin the human system on a path that almost inevitably leads to death or serious debilitating illness.

We live in an increasingly overstressed society, and for most of us we are reaching the stage where our immune systems—physical and psychic—will not be able to cope. Our ability to form close, supportive relationships with those around us is the only thing that can save us.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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