Nagging Wives Save Lives: Study Finds Married Folk Fare Better With Cancer

(Associated Press)

(Associated Press)

A major new cancer study suggests that when it comes to cancer, nagging wives may just save lives. Nagging husbands too, of course.

The study just out in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that marriage appears to confer three signal advantages on cancer patients: Married people are likelier to be diagnosed before the cancer has spread. They are likelier to get and stick through the right treatments. And they are likelier to live longer after the diagnosis.

In some cancers, the paper found, being married appears to improve a patient’s survival odds even a bit more than chemotherapy.

The study is the biggest yet on the link between marriage and cancer outcomes, said its lead author, Dr. Ayal Aizer, chief resident of the Harvard Radiation Oncology Program. It began with a database of more than 1 million patients and looked at the ten cancers that cause the most deaths, including cancers of the prostate, breast, lung and colon.

How might marriage improve cancer outcomes? Couldn’t married people just be richer or healthier or better able to get care? “We think it’s actually the marriage itself that really causes better outcomes,” Dr. Aizer said. “And we think it’s the support that a patient with cancer gets from their spouse that really is the difference-maker.”

How much of a difference does it make?

Dr. Aizer and his team generated a single analysis of all the patients with all their cancers and found: “Patients who were married are 20 percent more likely to be alive after their diagnosis of cancer at any time point” compared to patients who were not married, he said. “They’re also about 17 percent more likely to present with localized cancers, ones that are treatable or curable; and they’re about 53 percent more likely to get the recommended or appropriate treatment for their cancer.”

That 53 percent was striking and a bit baffling. Wouldn’t most patients get appropriate cancer treatment?

“That was one we were very surprised by,” Dr. Aizer agreed. It could have to do with spouses pushing patients with cancers whose treatments can include a “watch-and-wait” approach — such as early prostate cancer — to be treated aggressively instead, he said.

“But for most of the cancers, these patient should be getting either radiation or surgery, because they are curable, and for most cancers, observation is not an option,” he said. “So we think that it’s something to do with the spouse providing the necessary encouragement or pressure in order for that patient to A, get to the doctor, and B, when they get to the doctor, and the doctor provides a recommendation, to actually adhere to and follow through on that recommendation, and ultimately finish the course of therapy.” 

Treatment for head and neck cancer, he noted, can involve going in for radiation every day for seven weeks, and patients can have tough side effects. “Having a spouse there for encouragement and also to just physically get there every day is making the difference for these patients,” he said.

The study turned up some intriguing gender differences: Being married appears to help men with cancer more than it helps women, generally by several percentage points, it found.

Personally, I couldn’t help but be reminded of past studies that found that men tend to benefit more from marriage than women do, at least health-wise, and a 2011 study that found that far more husbands leave wives with cancer than vice versa. ABC News reported that “Nearly 21 percent of couples split up when the woman was the patient, compared to just about 3 percent when the man was the patient.”

The punditry at the time speculated that men had a harder time coping with a caregiver role; might that also explain the gender gap in this study?

In fact, Dr. Aizer said, it seems that marriage may be less of an advantage for married women compared to single women because single women tend to be good at marshaling the support they need to go through cancer treatments.

So the message, he said, is that single men are a group of particular concern, and may need extra help setting up support after a diagnosis.

In general, he said, “We didn’t want this to be a pat on the back for patients who are married. We didn’t want it to be, ‘Good job. You’re married. You’ve done all that you can do.”

“We want doctors to be aware of this so that they can get their unmarried population the support they need after a diagnosis with cancer. And we wanted health systems and hospitals to really invest in studies that look at the role of support among patients with cancer, and consider interventions to help people get the support they need. That could be social work, that could be support groups, that could be other kinds of interventions that just get people better support.”

Cancer patients, too, should be oriented toward building systems to help them through, Dr. Aizer said. “The more support people can obtain, the better,” he said.

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  • Peter Riley

    Nagging is a word now prohibited by the PC Police. Please update your Speech Code Handbook accordingly.

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  • Bill Barringer

    I am a 3x Cancer Survivor. I was tired of chemo and begging to be allowed to just stop. I didn’t care if I died, I just couldn’t do any more chemo. …… And then I was diagnosed with my third cancer. More aggressive cancer meant more aggressive treatment. …… My lover would not allow me to quit. He nagged me to take my medicine, put ointment on my 3rd degree radiation burns, and even held me up so I stayed on my feet, WALKING into every Dr. appointment & treatment. …. Without him, I would have given up and died just to end my suffering. …… !!!! BUT !!!! ….. December 8th 2013 will mark my 4th year in remission !!! … The more aggressive cancer treatments finally conquered my second cancer, ending my suffering, PERHAPS once and for all. …. Just last Friday, I made the decision to have my medi-port removed. The realization that I probably will never need to use it again is finally setting in. ……. So, FOR ME ….. YES,,, Nagging (Or more like being nagged) … Saved my life. Now I spend all of my days trying to repay my lover for the beautiful gift he gave me. .. Encouragement to hang in there until life got good again. —– Thank You Vincent L. Gurnick, I am forever in your debt!!!

  • Kae Oz

    Really? Your story talks about how the care and support women give their husbands help them survive cancer, that the fact that are likely to stick around and be there for them is a big factor in the husbands recovery, and you label them “Nagging Wives” in the title.
    That is truly sad.

  • Dee

    I have no nagging wife… but I do have a loving husband. Thanks for perpetuating the stereotypes.

  • Happily married woman

    Why do you say married couples do 20% better, when the truth is that married men do 40-44% better and married and single women do about the same! It’s not marriage that makes the difference. Is that women are better at health care than men!!!

    • MW

      Re: married men do 40-44% better and married and single women do about the same

      Where did you get this figure from?

  • Delta Victor Bravo

    What a horrible headline. Try “loving wives…” or “concerned partners…” but “nagging?” Somehow all that literature on the deleterious effects of stress would probably suggest that a nagging spouse and caring one lead to drastically different outcomes.

  • j4ckl3

    Or better put “Women find way to keep men alive in eternal hell.”.

  • A J MacDonald Jr

    i’m happy single