We all know that healthy and supportive relationships are important for maintaining good mental health and a positive attitude. But did you know having a satisfying romantic relationship could also improve the physical health of breast cancer survivors and keep them from redeveloping the disease?
Of course, it stands to reason that healthy and happy relationships can have a positive impact on anyone’s mental and physical health, but the research team that conducted this study was particularly interested in how it affected breast cancer survivors.
The team analyzed data from the previously conducted Kiecolt-Glaser study assessing fatigue and immune function in breast cancer survivors. 139 women with an average age of 55 were involved in that study, and each one of them completed self-report questionnaires and provided blood samples on three separate occasions: within a few months of their cancer diagnosis, at a follow-up visit six months after the end of cancer treatment, and again after 18 months. Participants were asked about their degree of happiness, the level of warmth and comfort they felt with their partner, how rewarding the relationship was, their overall satisfaction, and their perceived psychological stress.
What researchers discovered was that women who reported being in satisfying romantic relationships had lower levels of perceived psychological stress and lower inflammation levels in their blood tests, which researchers believe could decrease their risk of developing breast cancer again.
“This gave us a unique perspective—we found that when a woman was particularly satisfied with her relationship, she had lower stress and lower inflammation than usual—lower than her own average,” said lead author Rosie Shrout, a postdoctoral scholar in the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at The Ohio State University. “At a specific visit, if she was satisfied with her partner, her own inflammation was lower at that visit than at a different visit when she was less satisfied.”
Inflammation can promote healing when we’re sick or injured, but long-term inflammation is a health concern, and it has been linked to cancer recurrence and other illnesses, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease. Luckily, it appears that being in a happy relationship reduces psychological stress in breast cancer survivors, thereby reducing inflammation and lowering the risk of recurrence.
“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 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.”
Shrout says the findings suggest that doctors should keep an eye out for signs that their patients are going through stressful situations at home. If they see these signs, they can offer tips for reducing stress, including the possibility for couples counseling.
Of course, there are lots of ways to lower your stress level and reduce inflammation, even if you’re not in a romantic relationship. Exercising, eating a healthy diet, chatting with good friends, and taking time to relax might also help you de-stress and ward off breast cancer.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?