New Study: Having This Relationship May Extend Life Expectancy for Cancer Patients

Updated: Apr. 30, 2024

For today's 18 million cancer survivors, these findings add to the growing body of research that speaks to the power of healthy social connections.

A cancer diagnosis comes as a shock, no matter the circumstances. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that thanks to scientific and medical advancements, more individuals who have been diagnosed with cancer are triumphing over the disease and subsequently going on to lead long, healthy lives.

For those individuals and anyone going through treatment, a new study suggests one essential element that can complement cancer care long-term.

Recognizing that a cancer diagnosis can make the patient feel isolated or enhance previously existing feelings of loneliness, researchers affiliated with the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the Cancer Prevention and Control Program in Philadelphia conducted a study to examine the impact of loneliness on the long-term survival of cancer patients. Their findings, published in the April 25, 2024 issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (JNCCN), compared self-reported loneliness levels with mortality rates among a sample of 3,447 cancer survivors aged 50 years and older. 

The study analyzed data the participants had contributed to the Health and Retirement Study between 2008 and 2018, with the researchers collecting health and well-being information from the participants every two years until 2020. Loneliness levels were assessed by participants’ responses to a mental health survey, with scores ranging from None to Severe. 

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Notably, loneliness was widespread across the group, even among those who’d been diagnosed more than two years before the study commenced. More than 74% reported experiencing some level of loneliness, with 27% reporting severe loneliness.

The study revealed that in general, the participants who’d reported the highest levels of loneliness were also the most likely to die during the study period. 

The researchers emphasize that these findings should prompt healthcare providers who care for the millions of cancer survivors in the U.S. to take action, especially in the face of the seclusion the pandemic created starting in 2020. They advocate that healthcare providers should screen for loneliness as a routine aspect of caring for cancer survivors. Similar to other cancer symptoms, early detection of problematic loneliness can be addressed before it escalates. Jingxuan Zhao, MPH, one of the study’s lead authors and senior associate research scientist at the ACS, said in a press release: “There are more than 18 million cancer survivors in the U.S., and that number is expected to increase to 22 million by 2030. We need to address this critical issue now.”

And while the authors note that loneliness existed independently of whether participants had friends, family, or caregivers, this study may serve as a good reminder for the loved ones of cancer patients to gather round for support and smiles as much as possible. Increasing science suggests that loving relationships are the single biggest contributor to longevity.