Traditional marriage vows speak of promises “in sickness and in health.” It’s interesting that an array of studies finds that marriage may, in itself, keep you healthier. Likewise, researchers find that married people have a better chance of surviving a serious illness, such as cancer, than those who are single.
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In fact, having a supportive partner can help reduce depression, lower your blood pressure and make it more likely that you will eat better and stay more active. But how does marriage work “in sickness”?
Research shows that when you’re married, you’re less likely to die from major illnesses, including heart disease and cancer as well. Here’s what we know about why and how marriage is sometimes a powerful cancer medicine — and how singletons may reap similar benefits.
The power of relationships
A study published recently in the journal Cancer looked at more than 780,000 Californians diagnosed with cancer over a nine-year period.
It found that single men were 27 percent more likely to die from their condition than married men were. For single women, the mortality rate was 19 percent higher than for their married counterparts, although there was significant variation by race and ethnicity.
Another study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2013 found that married people with any kind of cancer were 20 percent less likely to die than single people. And for certain illnesses, including prostate, breast and colorectal cancer, marriage showed more impact on survival than chemotherapy.
“Our relationships are as important, or more important, than some medications we use for the treatment of cancer and other chronic illnesses,” says oncologist Jame Abraham, MD, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Breast Oncology Program.
What’s behind the marriage benefit?
It’s difficult to tease out what it is about marriage that appears to offer such protective benefits, but researchers see some similar characteristics in their studies.
In general, married people are:
- Up to 70 percent more likely to stick to a treatment plan or therapy (particularly challenging ones) when supported by a spouse or close family member
- Diagnosed at an earlier stage because a spouse encourages seeking treatment
- Slightly more economically stable than those who are single
- More likely to have insurance
“Compliance is really important,” Dr. Abraham says. “If you are married, you have a higher chance of access to care — getting to the hospital or clinic, …. whether it’s taking recommended tests and medications or undergoing procedures.”
Social circles can offer similar support
If you have cancer and are single, you can find many of the same benefits that married people have.
It’s not the wedding ring that improves your health. The key is to have strong social ties that you can lean on when you’re fighting a serious illness like cancer.
If you aren’t married, you may need to expand your network a bit: Look for support from friends, colleagues, and church or family members. As with a spouse, these people can provide rides, motivation, encouragement and help keep you on track with treatment.
Dr. Abraham says cancer support groups are useful as well. They offer social interaction, and they give you the chance to talk with people who have faced similar circumstances. Their input and support can help you along your journey toward recovery.
Regardless of your marital status, don’t try to go it alone when you’re fighting cancer. Let those around you help in any way they can. And don’t be afraid to lean on them and ask for help when you need it.