December 10, 2013 in Features

Ask Dr. K: Spouse’s support has positive effects during illness

Anthony L. Komaroff Universal Uclick
 

DEAR DOCTOR K: I read about a study that said married cancer patients do better than those who aren’t married. Why does marriage have such a positive effect?

DEAR READER: You’re probably talking about a study that was published earlier this year in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The study included about 735,000 people diagnosed with 10 different types of cancer. Married men were 23 percent less likely to die of cancer than those who were single, widowed or divorced. For married women, the advantage was 16 percent. For five of the 10 types of cancer, the survival benefits of marriage were stronger than the benefits of chemotherapy.

In my opinion, there’s one more reason that married people do better with cancer. I can’t prove it – and I can’t see how anyone could prove it. I think that very sick people can influence when they die. Which, in turn, depends on what they have to live for. If they want to throw in the towel, they can increase the likelihood that they will die soon. And if they are determined to live as long as possible, they can beat the odds.

My wife’s great-aunt was an independent, socially active woman in her 90s. When her husband died, she said that if she ever learned she had a fatal disease, she would seek no treatment except pain relief. Instead, she would promptly “join my hubby.”

When she learned she had advanced stomach cancer, she refused surgery and chose hospice. She invited 15 living relatives to visit her. She kept the names on a list. When we all had arrived, she checked our names off the list, told us she loved us and asked us to say a prayer. She then fell into a deep sleep. The next day she was gone.

My brother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and told he had a year to live. His daughter told him that she and her fiance wanted to wait three years to get married, when they finished school. He told his wife and daughter, “I’ll be there.” He was there, thin as a rail. He danced the first dance with the bride, his smile lighting up the room. A few weeks later, he was gone.


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