Strong social ties improve survival chances in women with breast cancer
The quality of a woman's personal relationships are just as important as the size of her social networks in predicting her odds of beating breast cancer, a new study has shown.
Previous research has shown that women with larger social networks-including spouses or partners, female relatives, friends, religious and social ties, and ties to the community through volunteering-have better breast cancer survival.
The study included 2,264 women who were diagnosed with early-stage, invasive breast cancer between 1997 and 2000, and who were part of the Life After Cancer Epidemiology (LACE) study.
After providing information on their personal relationships, they were characterized as socially isolated (few ties), moderately integrated, or socially integrated (many ties).
"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.
The study found that socially isolated women were 34 percent more likely to die from breast cancer or other causes than socially integrated women. Specifically, larger social networks were "unrelated to recurrence or breast cancer mortality, (they) were associated with lower mortality from all causes," the authors wrote.
Researchers measured levels of social support from friends and family using a survey that asked women to rate the quality of their relationships on a five-point scale within the past week.
Based on their survey results, the women were additionally characterized as having high or low levels of social support.
The study found that levels of support within relationships were important 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, women with small networks and low levels of support were 61 percent more likely to die from breast cancer and other causes than those with small networks and high levels of support.
"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," she added.
The study has been published in the current issue of Breast Cancer Research and Treatment.