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Can Satisfying Romantic Relationships Lead to Better Health for Breast Cancer Survivors?

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A study suggests that women who’ve been treated for breast cancer who are in satisfying romantic relationships may have a lower risk of health problems after treatment.

Still, it’s not a direct cause-and-effect relationship. Women who felt happy and fulfilled in their relationships also said they were less stressed. Together, these two factors were linked to lower levels of inflammation markers in the women’s blood. Long-term high levels of inflammation markers have been linked to a number of health problems, including heart disease and diabetes, as well as a higher risk of breast cancer coming back (recurrence).

The research was published in the August 2020 issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. Read the abstract of “Relationship satisfaction predicts lower stress and inflammation in breast cancer survivors: A longitudinal study of within-person and between-person effects.”

About inflammation

Inflammation happens when chemical messengers in the body called cytokines tell white blood cells and proteins to rush to a problem — such as when you bump your head or touch poison ivy — to fight it and then help heal it. Damaged cells also produce healing chemicals. The combination of white blood cells, proteins, and healing chemicals increases circulation to the area, which produces heat, swelling, and pain.

The inflammatory process is completely normal, and it’s how your body fights illness and repairs damage.

There are two types of inflammation:

  • acute inflammation comes on suddenly and goes away after its job is done
  • chronic (long-term) inflammation happens when the immune system is causing inflammation all or most of the time at a low level

Acute inflammation helps us heal, but chronic inflammation can harm us. Chronic inflammation means the immune system is working overtime and may not know when to stop.

In chronic inflammation, the overload of certain cells and proteins can damage the body’s cells and tissues and change the way they function. Inflammation can even produce extra heat in and around our cells. These changes can make you more likely to get sick. Chronic inflammation can be limited to a certain part of the body, such as your mouth if your teeth are in poor condition. Chronic inflammation also can affect your whole body if you have a condition that affects your whole body, such as obesity.

About the study

This small study included 139 women who had been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer (stage 0 to stage IIIC). The women’s average age was 55.

Before treatment, and then again 6 and 18 months after treatment was completed, the women completed questionnaires on how satisfied they were with their romantic relationship(s), as well as how stressed they felt.

The questionnaires asked about:

  • how happy the women felt
  • the level of warmth and comfort the women felt with their partners
  • how rewarding the relationship was
  • the women’s overall satisfaction
  • how stressed the women felt over the previous week

The women also had blood drawn after they filled out the questionnaires so the researchers could measure levels of four proteins considered to be inflammation markers.

The results showed that the more satisfied the women were with their romantic relationships, the less stressed they felt, and the lower their levels of inflammation markers were.

“It's important for survivors, when they’re going through this uncertain time, to feel comfortable with their partners and feel cared for and understood, and also for their partners to feel comfortable and share their own concerns,” said Rosie Shrout, lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher in the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at the Ohio State University. “Our findings suggest that this close partnership can boost their bond as a couple and also promote survivors’ health even during a very stressful time, when they’re dealing with cancer.

“The research shows the importance of fostering survivors’ relationships,” she continued. “Some survivors might need help connecting with their partners during a stressful time, so that means it’s important for part of their screening and treatment to take the relationship into account and include a reference to couples counseling when appropriate. Doing so could promote their health over the long run.”

What this means for you

This study adds more evidence to a large body of research showing that people who are well-connected to other people and have satisfying relationships have better health. They have a lower risk of developing common health problems and are more likely to recover from serious medical issues.

But this doesn’t mean you’re compromising your health if you’re not coupled up. Having a partner isn’t for everyone. Single people can be happy and healthy, too, especially if they have a good social network of family, friends, clubs, hobbyists, or a religious organization.

If you feel a bit isolated, you may want to try and broaden your social network. Think about what you like to do, whether it’s sports, art, cooking, hiking, or knitting. No matter the topic, there’s probably a group for it — you just have to find it.

It’s also important to consider the quality of your existing relationships. Being open about what’s going on with you helps you connect with other people. Being diagnosed with breast cancer is scary, and both you and your loved ones may respond to that stress in different ways. You may have the urge to pull away. You might feel like people expect you to put on a brave face. Loved ones may seem distant because they don’t know what to say or how to help. Or they might be afraid of losing you.

Try to be honest and clear about what you’re feeling. Then think about what you really want or need from your partner or best friend. Do you want someone to go with you to appointments? Do you want someone to just listen to your fears without trying to give you answers? Do you want to be held? Ask for what you need directly. Don’t assume that anyone knows what you need.

You also can ask your doctor or someone at your treatment center about support groups in your area, as well as online groups they might recommend. Many have a specific focus, such as metastatic disease, or people with young children.

You also may want to check out the Breastcancer.org Discussion Boards. Our Discussion Boards have fostered many strong friendships among the thousands of active members, so if you want to connect with someone who’s starting chemotherapy or having surgery at the same time that you are, you’re likely to find that person on our site.

Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor


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