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Breast cancer survivors with romantic relationships could have better health outcomes

Researchers say lower stress levels could make the difference

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While romantic relationships can affect everything from parenting outcomes to finances, a new study found that a satisfying romantic partner can also boost health outcomes. 

According to researchers from Ohio State University, breast cancer survivors had fewer health concerns when they were in positive romantic relationships. 

“It is 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 researcher Rose Shrout. “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 benefits of a supportive partner

The researchers had nearly 140 women participate in the study. In addition to questionnaires about their overall satisfaction regarding their romantic relationships and stress levels, the participants gave blood samples at three points over the course of the study. 

In analyzing the blood samples, the researchers were most interested in the participants’ inflammation levels. They explained that monitoring inflammation is key for protecting against any number of health conditions, and for cancer patients especially. 

The researchers learned that positive romantic relationships were key in keeping inflammation levels low. Both inflammation and stress levels were found to be lower in cases where the participants reported the highest levels of satisfaction in their romantic relationships. 

However, the researchers also noted that the opposite was true: conflict between partners can have a negative impact on survivors’ health outcomes. Connection and support are powerful parts of the healing process, but if that connection is fraught with arguments or negativity, it can be detrimental. 

“Some of the research would suggest it’s better to be alone than in a troubled relationship,” said researcher Janice Kiecolt-Glaser. “A good marriage offers good support, but the broader message for a breast cancer survivor who is not married is to seek support in other relationships.” 

Fostering healthy relationships

The researchers hope that these findings can be helpful to both breast cancer survivors and medical professionals, as marital struggles -- or successes -- could offer insight into health outcomes. 

“The research shows the importance of fostering survivors’ relationships,” said Shrout. “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.” 

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