What Unmarried People Should Learn from Married Cancer Patients

Marriage benefits cancer patients. Here's how unmarried people can also benefit.


It is American dogma that “50% of marriages end in divorce.”  While this statistic is arguable, divorce is ubiquitous in our culture.  And tens of thousands of adults choose to never get married.  And thousands of others, sadly, are widowed.  But when weighing the costs versus benefits of remaining in or entering into a marriage, one thing that is likely never considered is cancer.  Yet when it comes to cancer, being married most definitely falls into the “plus” column, because married cancer patients experience several benefits that literally and significantly increase their chance of survival.

The two most important features of a person’s malignancy in terms of prognosis (the likelihood of survival) are the type of cancer (such as breast or colon) and the cancer stage (the sites within the body harboring cancer, including the primary tumor and metastatic spread).  When it comes to cancer stage, unmarried patients (including single, divorced, and widowed) are at a major disadvantage.  For the ten most dangerous malignancies, cancer at the time of diagnosis in unmarried versus married patients is significantly (17%) more likely to already have spread (metastasized) to distant body sites.  This represents a major advantage for married patients, as metastatic disease at initial diagnosis is associated with a much lower likelihood of cure (as well as the likely need for more aggressive treatment).

It may be that married adults may have better health care insurance, but a more likely (and impactful) explanation for the earlier stage at diagnosis in married people is two characteristics of marriage itself.

  Most importantly, spouses are invested in one another.  Emotionally, financially, and in many other ways.  The past, present, and future of married couples are intricately intertwined.  As a result, spouses are acutely concerned about threats to their partners.  Second, spouses spend significant amounts of time together, during which they both openly communicate and silently observe one another’s behavior and demeanor.

  Thus, you notice if your wife seems overly tired.   You recognize the concern on your husband’s face.  You mention the dark mole on your partner’s back.  And not only do spouses constantly (even subconsciously) evaluate each other, they also push one another to see a physician.  They push, then press, and finally nag their partner into the doctor’s office.  The result?  Married cancer patients are diagnosed with earlier stage cancers, translating into a greater likelihood of cure and potentially less aggressive treatment.

Following diagnosis, the marriage benefit continues, as unmarried cancer patients without metastatic disease are a whopping 53% less likely to undergo definitive surgical and/or radiation therapy treatment.  This is a staggering difference.  Cancer surgery is a very scary proposition, often associated with significant risks for both short and long term quality of life, as well as an often lengthy recovery.  Radiation therapy represents an enormous logistical challenge, often requiring weeks of daily outpatient visits, interrupting work and other obligations, as well as physically exhausting patients.

  Thus, it’s not surprising that having a spouse’s support (emotional, logistical, financial) greatly increases the acceptance and completion of treatment.

Finally, there’s the big one:  survival.  Even when matched for cancer stage and definitive treatment (that is, comparing apples to apples), married cancer patients are 20% less likely to die from their malignancy than similar unmarried patients.  Married people better deal with the stresses and depression associated with a cancer diagnosis than do single people.  The huge advantage in survival is again likely due to the broad and deep emotional (as well as logistical and financial) support provided by a loving spouse whose investment in their partner’s survival translates into constant encouragement to complete treatment, soothing during the challenges of treatment side-effects, and optimism during the darkest moments. 

So what’s the take-home message for unmarried people?  First, emotionally invest in the health of your friends and family, and encourage them to invest in your health.  This means breaking through cultural norms, commenting on a change in the appearance (significant weight loss, overly tired) or behavior (concerned, unfocused) of an unmarried friend.  Ask.  Say something.  Urge (even nag) them to see a doctor.  And share any health changes or concerns with your friends and family, and listen when they push you to see a physician.  If you are unmarried and diagnosed with cancer, as uncomfortable as it is, don’t go it alone.  Seek support (emotional, logistical, and financial) from friends, family, pastors, whomever.  You will pay it back (figuratively and literally) once you’re healthy (and alive).  Stay with others when at your emotional lowest, when treatment side-effects challenge are greatest.  You would do this for someone else (even one you don’t know very well), so don’t be too proud or ashamed to ask for help from others.

The numbers don’t lie.  Learn from married cancer patients.  Having others invest in you, there for you, before and during cancer treatment is a game changer.

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