Socialization With Cancer Survivors May Impact Patient Response to Chemotherapy

Interaction between patients with cancer during chemotherapy may increase 5-year survival.

A new study published by Network Science suggests that social interaction may be crucial for the success of chemotherapy in patients with cancer. The authors found that patients were more likely to achieve 5-year survival if they interacted with other patients during chemotherapy who also survived for 5 or more years.

On the other hand, patients had a slightly increased risk of mortality if they interacted with patients who died in less than 5 years, according to the study.

“People model behavior based on what’s around them,” said lead author Jeff Lienert. “For example, you will often eat more when you’re dining with friends, even if you can’t see what they’re eating. When you’re bicycling, you will often perform better when you’re cycling with others, regardless of their performance.”

The authors aimed to determine how social interaction affects patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Included in the study were data from electronic medical records data from 2000 to 2009 from 2 hospitals in the UK. The authors specifically examined the time patients spend with the same patients also undergoing chemotherapy and 5-year survival rates. The investigators also examined room schematics to confirm that patients were positioned to interact during treatment, according to the study.

“We had information on when patients checked in and out of the chemotherapy ward, a small intimate space where people could see and interact for a long period of time,” Dr Lienert said. “We used ‘time spent getting chemotherapy in a room with others as a proxy for social connection.”

The investigators discovered that when patients interacted with other patients who died in less than 5 years, they had a 72% chance of dying within 5 years of treatment, according to the study.

In patients who interacted with patients who survived 5 or more years after chemotherapy, the risk of mortality within 5 years was reduced to 68%. If patients were isolated, they were observed to have a 69.5% risk of dying within 5 years of chemotherapy.

“A 2% difference in survival — between being isolated during treatment and being with other patients – might not sound like a lot, but it’s pretty substantial,” Lienert said. “If you saw 5000 patients in 9 years, that 2% improvement would affect 100 people.”

The investigators did not explore why there were differences in survival, but they believe that stress could play a role.

“When you’re stressed, stress hormones such as adrenaline are released, resulting in a fight or flight response,” Lienert said. “If you are then unable to fight or fly, such as in chemotherapy, these hormones can build up.”

The authors hypothesize that having visitors during chemotherapy may produce similarly positive effects, according to the study.

“Positive social support during the exact moments of greatest stress is crucial,” Lienert concluded. “If you have a friend with cancer, keeping him or her company during chemotherapy probably will help reduce their stress. The impact is likely to be as effective, and possibly more effective, than cancer patients interacting with other cancer patients.”