Married cancer patients are 20 percent more likely to beat the disease

Marriage and its impact on cancer survival 2:17

Marriage just might save your life: A new study finds that married cancer patients are 20 percent more likely to survive their disease than people who are not married.

Married cancer patients were also more likely to be diagnosed before the disease had widely spread, and, perhaps most importantly, they were more likely to receive prescribed care like radiation, surgery or other potentially life-saving treatments, according to the new report published today in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The study authors, including Dr. Paul Nguyen of Brigham and Women's Cancer Center, came to these conclusions after scrutinizing data from nearly one million patients who had been diagnosed with 10 of the deadliest cancers: lung, colorectal, breast, pancreatic, prostate, liver, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, head/neck, ovarian or esophageal.

For Tom and Marge Interlante, this new data was their reality when Tom was diagnosed with testicular cancer about two decades ago. It’s not like there’s ever a good time for cancer to strike, but the timing of Tom's diagnosis could hardly have come at a worse time: He and his wife, Marge, had just bought a house, and they had two little kids – a 4 ½ year old and a 7 month old.

“In my absence, she had to be dad, still had to be mom, she had to be the bus driver – she had to be everything,” Tom says.

It was “terrible,” Marge remembers, to have to give reassuring words of encouragement to her husband “when deep down I didn’t know that he was going to be OK, but I had to have him believe he was going to be OK.” But she stepped up, accompanying her husband to his appointments and helping him to try to make sense of what the doctor was telling them. 

"It's what moms and spouses do; we have to be there," says Marge, who ran the Bill Bottino Mud Run For Cancer this weekend with her family.

The partnership a marriage brings is likely one of the reasons married people fare better through a cancer diagnosis, Nguyen told NBC News.

“It can be a very practical thing, like having somebody to go to the doctor with you,” Nguyen says. While the actual patient might be reeling from the scariness of it all, the partner can listen, take notes and ask questions, he says, exactly the way the Interlantes tag-teamed Tom’s appointments.

This study may also point to an upside of all that spousal nagging – so listen when your husband or wife gets on you to go to the doctor to check out some worrisome symptoms. This study found that this translated to doctors catching cancer in married patients before the disease had time to take root in other parts of the body.

And after that diagnosis, your spouse is not going to let you skip an appointment. While there are many answers to explain why marriage increases survival among cancer patients, the study authors say the most likely explanation is that married patients stick to their prescribed treatment – likely because their partner is making sure that they do.

Psychologically speaking, cancer is a terrifying diagnosis, one that’s too scary to bear all by yourself. Sharing the emotional burden with a partner means the patient is less distressed, depressed or anxious, all of which have been linked to better health overall.

“There were days that I literally wanted to give up,” says Tom Interlante, who has now been cancer-free for 20 years. “I don’t know that I wouldn’t have survived this long if it wasn’t for her.”

The study also found that guys seem to benefit more from marriage when it comes to surviving cancer: Men had a 23 percent improvement in survival if they were married; for women, it was 16 percent. Nguyen says unmarried women may be more likely to reach out to their social networks for help, whereas that might not come as easily to unmarried men.

That's all great news for the 51 percent of Americans who are married. But what if you’re single, or widowed? Nguyen doesn’t want news of this study to scare unmarried people. Instead, it should remind all of us the importance of social support. 

“This is not supposed to be a downer for single people; this is not supposed to be just a pat on the back for married people,” Nguyen says. “This is really supposed to be something that gets us all to think about how we can help each other -- how we can help our friends, and our loved ones, with cancer."

The National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute spends $5 billion annually on studying the biological aspect of cancer. But the study authors argue that at least some of that money should be devoted to studying social support interventions, especially among the unmarried, as a way of improving the odds of cancer survival. 

"What this shows is that social support can really make a big difference, and that by being there for somebody – going to their appointments, helping them through their treatment – you can really make a real difference in their chance of surviving," Nguyen says.