Thursday, October 28, 2010

Love and Survival

Since my recurrence of ovarian cancer in mid-September, I have been doing a great deal of reading about what I could do to eradicate the cancer once and for all from my life. The studies on diet and exercise were not surprising, and I have radically changed my diet over the past three weeks. However, the importance of emotional well being and social support have been very enlightening. The title of this column is the same as a book by Dean Ornish about this very topic. He cites numerous studies about the key role played by family, friends, spouses and social connections such as church/synagogue or other community associations in fighting illness.

It turns out that being single can be a predictor of shorter survival times and an increased chance of recurrence. And the studies don’t just relate to cancer patients, in fact, Ornish’s work is primarily with heart disease, but the findings suggest that even the common cold can be better protected against with quality social networks and interaction. When we hear the term “social networks” today, we think of tools like Facebook and Twitter. Ornish wrote his book before these networks were available, but he does suggest that virtual relationships are not as meaningful as real face-to-face ones. Sometimes modern society can make us feel connected when we really aren’t.

The most striking study was conducted by Dr. David Spiegel and colleagues at Stanford in 1989. Published in the British journal The Lancet, they studied women with metastatic breast cancer. Spiegel initially set out to prove that social connection DID NOT have an impact on survival. Participants in the study were divided into two groups – both of which received the same conventional treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. One group also met together for 90 minutes each week over the course of a year to talk about the impact of the disease on their lives. They became comfortable enough to share their feelings openly, including fears of disfigurement, abandonment and even death.

Five years later, Dr. Spiegel reviewed the data and was shocked to discover that women in the support group lived on average twice as long as the control group, and all of the women in the group without support were dead. Dr. Spiegel wrote the book Living Beyond Limits about the extraordinary findings of this study. Other studies have shown that support groups as short as six weeks long have had similar outcomes for the people who attended regularly. Each study controlled for diet, exercise, family history and other factors that typically impact disease and found significant advantages to social connection even beyond these other factors.

So, does that mean that those of us who are single are doomed to get sick more often and die sooner than our married or partnered friends? Absolutely not! In fact, marriages with problems – a great deal of disagreement or stress – have been shown to produce negative effects as well. As evidenced above, support can come in many forms: a close network of friends with whom you can share your fears, or even a support group of other people who understand what you are going through, a close family, strong ties to a religious or other community and a willingness to be vulnerable enough to truly open yourself up to others. That last factor is perhaps the most difficult for many of us, and yet, the most important to truly offer authentic connection. It isn’t the quantity of support that matters, but the quality!

Other factors that have been proven to influence healing and well being:
Roommates or living with family
Touch – massage, reiki or just holding the hand of a friend
Community involvement, service
Yoga and meditation (or other relaxation techniques)

If you are single and battling cancer or some other illness, connecting with the people in your life, or finding new sources of support, may be the most important thing you can do for yourself. Ask for what you need. Whether it’s talking on the phone more regularly, going out for a walk, sharing coffee once a week, visiting or hosting a friend or sibling for a weekend, joining a support group, participating in group meditation or yoga classes, serving others directly, or any number of other things you can do to connect with the world around you.

Experiencing this again has been incredibly difficult for me. Being told you have cancer the first time is shocking. You know your life has changed, and you are scared and uncertain about the future. Hearing you have cancer AGAIN, can be devastating. You know what to expect in some regards, how difficult it will be, and how much time it will take from your normal activities. It can feel like a betrayal of sorts. You have been there, done that, and thought it was in the past.

This recurrence has reinforced for me, how very important it is to provide a source of support for single people who are experiencing serious illness or injury. A new organization and support network, Solo Survivors, is in the works, though it may be a bit slower in gearing up given my own personal challenges at the moment. This dream started because I wanted to help others who were going it alone, but now I will get to figure out how to help myself in order to serve others. “We cannot hold a torch to light another’s path without brightening our own.,” as Ben Sweetland so aptly stated.