After studying more than 3,000 patients over a five year period, researchers at Kaiser Permanente say that patients who reported having “positive social interactions” with friends were better able to deal with the pain and other physical symptoms associated with breast cancer.
“This study provides research-based evidence that social support helps with physical symptoms,” said lead author Candyce H. Kroenke, ScD, staff scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research.
“Social support mechanisms matter in terms of physical outcomes.”
Within two months of their diagnosis, the women in the study completed questionnaires on their social networks, the kinds of support they received, their emotional and physical quality of life, and their physical symptoms from breast cancer.
Women with the highest levels of social integration, which includes large social networks or personal relationships, were most likely to report the best overall quality of life during breast cancer treatment.
Higher levels of social support were also related to better emotional quality of life
“While hundreds of studies have examined the role of factors influencing cancer risk and prevention, this study is one of a small but growing number that focus on quality of life after a breast cancer diagnosis,” said Kroenke.
Different types of social support and positive social interaction were the most important predictor of quality of life. Those who indicated having little or no positive interaction were three times more likely to report a low quality of life and greater physical symptoms.
“Positive social interaction was significantly related to every quality-of-life measure,” the authors wrote.
“Given that this dimension was determined by the availability of someone with whom to have fun, relax and get one’s mind off things for awhile, it is possible that positive social interaction may enable women to forget for a while the distress of being a cancer patient, and the physiologic effects last beyond the actual interaction.”
The impact of tangible support, such as having a friend who helps with chores, takes patients to the doctor, or provides food, was also strong and most useful to women with late-stage breast cancer. Researchers say that patients with low levels of tangible support were nearly three times more likely to report their quality of life was worse than average.
Previous studies from the Kaiser Permanente found that high-fat dairy consumption increases mortality risk for breast cancer patients, while soy decreases the risk of breast cancer reoccurring. Quality of life and physical activity were also found to be beneficial.
About 230,000 women are diagnosed with invasive breast cancer each year in the United States. There are nearly 3 million breast cancer survivors.
The fact that more women are being cured of breast cancer increases the importance of quality of life after diagnosis, said Kroenke.