You don't need a study to tell you that good friends and a close family can help boost the morale of a women facing breast cancer. But arguing convincingly that a close social network can increase a woman's survival rate? That takes a study.
New research by scientists at Kaiser Permanente and published in the November 2012 issue of the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment found that women with strong social networks had a lower mortality rate than socially isolated women. The scientists, led by Candyce H. Kroenke, Sc.D., MPH, followed 2,264 women diagnosed with early-stage invasive breast cancer between 1997 and 2000 and found that socially isolated women were 34 percent more likely to die of breast cancer and other causes than women with close social ties.
The study is one of the first to examine how the quality of social ties affects breast cancer survival rate, the Daily Mail reported. The researchers determined that while the quantity of social ties a woman has impacts mortality more, the importance of quality shouldn't be discounted. Indeed, 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. "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.
While researchers have identified many risk factors for breast cancer -- findings have linked the disease to genetics and behaviors like alcohol consumption -- those who study it have only recently turned their attention to exploring links between breast cancer and mental and emotional experience, including depression and sociality. Researchers at UCLA got a $5 million grant this month to explore the high incidence of depression among breast cancer survivors.
According to Kaiser Permanente's press release, if women don't have close family and friends, strong ties to their community or religious organization can have similarly positive effects. The release also noted that the benefits of close social ties for women who had them included not only emotional support but also from practical support like meals and rides to the hospital.
The takeaway? If you know someone with breast cancer, show her as much as possible that you're there for her and will put in the time and effort to help. If the Kaiser Permanente study is right, it could make an even bigger difference than you thought possible.