Married people more likely to survive cancer, but for a sad reason

In a new study, researchers found unmarried patients with cancer are less likely to get potentially life-saving surgery or radiotherapy than their married counterparts.

This raises the concern that medical providers may be relying on stereotypes that discount sources of social support other than a current spouse.

The research was conducted by a team from the University of Delaware.

The team examined 84 medical articles that draw on a massive National Cancer Institute database to show that patients are much less likely to receive surgery or radiotherapy if they are not currently married.

Although this disparity has been attributed in studies to such factors as patients’ treatment preferences or a weaker will to live among unmarried people, the team found that those speculations are not only unsupported by data but actually conflict with extensive research findings.

Rather, the study suggests that cultural stereotypes inappropriately influence the treatments recommended for unmarried patients with cancer.

The central issue for physicians is the social support that patients need, especially if their treatments require numerous healthcare visits or may cause debilitating side effects.

But while unmarried people often have especially strong networks of friends and community ties, medical researchers tend to equate social support with having a spouse.

Some patients–married as well as unmarried–certainly lack the social support necessary to handle aggressive treatment.

But that generalization can’t possibly apply to nearly half the adult population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 45% of U.S. adults are unmarried.

The study says even if medical researchers mean to recommend what’s best for patients, as they presumably do, their reliance on stereotypes about unmarried adults is misleading, especially when they misinterpret sociological and psychological studies that do not, in fact, support those stereotypes.

The lead author of the study is Joan DelFattore, a professor emerita of English.

The study is published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

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