Value of Social Support

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

JULY 12, 2017

This is not new information, but it is another confirmation of the reality that we need each other. Remember the old Barbra Streisand song: People who need people are the luckiest people in the world. We do better in life when we are connected with others, and this report suggests that we may even live longer. I do think this conclusion needs to be taken with the usual grain of salt. It is impossible to sort out all the contributing factors, and the intent is certainly not to make isolated cancer patients feel even more alone and worried.

A study looking at more than 9000 women found that isolated woman (and I don't know exactly how they defined that) were at higher risk of a breast cancer diagnosis in the first place and were at a higher risk of dying from the disease. I surely don't understand the reasons for the higher risk of diagnosis; my solid understanding is that cancer is a biological process, and whether or not we have friends or family or a church community or a job does not impact our cells. I can understand the possibility that diagnosis might come later and that treatment might be less consistent.

For example, I met with a woman this week who has just been diagnosed with a fairly serious breast cancer. After meeting with a surgeon who suggested neoadjuvant chemotherapy (meaning, chemo before surgery) and then with a medical oncologist who talked about the chemo, she commented that she might refuse all treatment. At that point, I was called in. Clearly I don't have any magic, and my task was to try to understand her life and her context and her thoughts/feelings. She was very close-mouthed and told me nothing other than the name of the town where she lives alone. She does not drive, and her only specific concern was transportation to and from appointments--although she declined a connection with our Community Resource Specialist who could help with rides. She left my office without making a decision, but I put the odds no better than 50/50 that she will accept treatment. I don't know her, and I don't know about her life, but I do know that she is isolated and alone and feeling very overwhelmed.

From Living Beyond Breast Cancer comes this story:

Study Finds People Who Have Breast Cancer Live Longer
With Strong Social Support

Women with breast cancer tend to have better outcomes when they have a bigger network of friends, family and other social connections, but different types of were important for different women according to an article in the journal Cancer, from the American Cancer Society.
Earlier studies have found that people who have larger networks of social relationships live longer, whether they are healthy or have breast cancer. Over a given period of time, the studies saw more people with small social groups die than people with large social groups, such as family, friends or colleagues. While these studies found that the size of a person’s social group predicted if people were more likely to die of any cause, they did not show whether social group size impacts disease
factors like , new breast cancers, or death from breast cancer.
Healthcare providers can use information about a person’s risks, whether the cause is medical, practical or social, to connect them to helpful resources.
The After Breast Cancer Pooling Project used information from four existing cohorts, groups of people who are observed for a study, to look at the effects of social network size on breast cancer outcomes in 9,267 women with . A point system was used to measure the size of each woman’s social network. Women were assigned points for being in a romantic relationship, participating in volunteer work or a religious organization, and for how many friends and relatives they reported. The more points a person had, the more they were considered socially integrated, or having a strong network of social connections. A person with fewer points was considered more isolated.

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Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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