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Friends and family may help breast cancer survival


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Does having a large social network help breast cancer survivors have better outcomes? Research from the current study found that socially isolated breast cancer survivors had an increased risk of recurrence and breast cancer-specific mortality. (3/16/17)


STUDY AT A GLANCE

This study is about:

Whether social networks are associated with better survival after breast cancer.

Why is this study important?

If social networks are beneficial to a woman’s prognosis after breast cancer, researchers and health care providers can use this information to develop more effective social and clinical interventions to help survivors.

Study findings: 

  1. Socially isolated breast cancer survivors had higher risk of recurrence, breast cancer-specific mortality, and overall mortality compared to survivors who had large social networks.

What does this mean for me?

This study suggests that social networks may be beneficial for breast cancer survivors. While researchers and health care providers do not understand exactly how a large social network benefits prognosis and survival, survivors should make sure to reach out to family and friends if they need support and assistance. Additionally, they can reach out to health care providers or find support groups to talk to about their concerns.

Questions to ask your health care provider:

  • What factors are associated with a better prognosis for breast cancer survivors?
  • Are in-person or online support groups available for people with a diagnosis similar to mine?
  • What resources are available for young women with breast cancer?

IN DEPTH REVIEW OF RESEARCH

Study background:

Previous work found an association between better overall survival in cancer patients who had good support networks; however, improved breast cancer-specific mortality has not been studied.

Candyce Kroenke and her colleagues from Kaiser Permanente and other institutions published research in 2016 in the journal Cancer that studied the association between breast cancer-specific mortality and social networks.

Researchers of this study wanted to know:

Does a larger social network help breast cancer survivors have a better prognosis?  

Population(s) looked at in the study:

The 9,267 women in this study were part of the After Breast Cancer Pooling Project (ABCPP) and previously had invasive breast cancer (stage I-IV). The ABCPP included women from multiple United States locations and Shanghai, China.

The researchers measured women’s social networks within two years after their diagnosis, using the Berkman-Syme social network index. This index includes five components:

  • spouse/intimate partner
  • number of relatives
  • friendship ties
  • religious/social ties
  • community ties

A higher number on the index meant that the women had greater social ties.

Depending on her score, each woman’s data was assigned to one of three groups:

  • Socially isolated
  • Moderately integrated
  • Socially integrated

The women were then followed for up to 21 years (the follow-up time for individuals ranged from about 1 to 21 years) to observe rates of recurrence, breast cancer-specific mortality and overall mortality.

Study findings: 

  1. Socially isolated breast cancer survivors had higher risk of recurrence, breast cancer-specific mortality, and overall mortality compared to survivors who had large social networks.
  2. Having no spouse/partner and community ties was associated with higher breast cancer-specific mortality in older white women.
  3. Having no relatives or friendship ties was associated with higher breast cancer-specific mortality in nonwhite women.

Limitations:

This study did not include many women of lower socioeconomic status, who tend to have smaller social networks and poorer survival. So while not definitive, it is more likely that because of this limitation, the study underestimated the association between social networks and survival. Nor did this study include many African American or Hispanic women. Finally, the study authors acknowledged that having later stage disease, such as metastatic breast cancer, could be a factor in determining social network size.                         

Conclusions:

This study suggests that not having a large social network is associated with poorer outcomes after breast cancer, though more work needs to be done to understand why. Women who have had breast cancer should reach out to their family, friends, health care providers, and other support groups if they need support or assistance.

Posted 3/16/17

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Reference

Kroenke CH, Michael YL, Poole EM, et al. “Postdiagnosis Social Networks and Breast Cancer Mortality in the After Breast Cancer Pooling Project.” Cancer. Published online first on December 2016.  

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