Women's Social Networks May Play Role in Breast Cancer Survival and Recurrence

Having strong social support may lead to better breast cancer outcomes, according to a recent study.
BY Katie Kosko
PUBLISHED December 12, 2016
Women with breast cancer who are socially isolated tend to have higher rates of recurrence and mortality, according to a new study published today in the journal CANCER.

Researchers at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, California found that these women had a 40 percent higher risk of recurrence, a 60 percent higher risk of dying from breast cancer and a 70 percent higher risk of dying from any cause when compared with socially integrated women. The associations were stronger in those with stage 1 and 2 cancer, stated the study.

“Social ties seem to be strong predictors of mortality in generally healthy populations, but this large study also seems to confirm the importance of social ties for breast cancer-specific deaths as well as for recurrence, so it confirmed associations that I had found a decade ago,” Candyce Kroenke, Sc.D., lead researcher on the study, said in an interview with CURE.

She and her team studied 9,267 women from four smaller cohorts of women from across the United States and Shanghai, China, to see how their social networks might affect their survival.

A social network was defined by the presence of a spouse/partner, religious ties, community ties, friendship ties and numbers of living first-degree relatives. The women participating provided data within two years of diagnosis.

Over a median follow-up of 10.6 years, there were 1,448 cancer recurrences and 1,521 deaths, of which 990 were from breast cancer. Researchers determined that socially isolated women were more likely to be white, college-educated and without children. These women also were more likely to be obese, smoke and drink more than recommended.

In addition, race and certain social settings played roles in recurrence and mortality.

“When we looked by certain sociodemographic groups, we found that the types of ties that were really critical predictors of outcomes differed for different women,” said Kroenke. “In older white women a marital partner was really important for a predictor of breast cancer mortality, but in nonwhite women friends and family were really important for better outcomes.”

Community ties were beneficial to older white women and Asian women as they predicted lower risks of breast cancer specific mortality and total mortality. Religious participation was not associated with outcomes.

“Generally speaking, what we see is that more ties seem to be better and they do predict better outcomes, but when you put all these ties together, it is not true in all women; what you see is there is sometimes these subgroups of women in which it’s not this large number of ties, but a critical number of key, high-quality really supportive ties that makes a difference,” she said.

Kroenke noted that it’s important for women with breast cancer to remember to ask for help. She advised getting support from the people around you, talking with clinicians and finding out the opportunities of support that are available, whether it be peer support groups, peer navigation or online support groups.
Kroenke hopes to continue further studies as a way to identify the opportunities that will improve outcome for women with breast cancer. She also wants to try to understand the mechanism of social ties and how it affects outcomes.
 
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