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THURSDAY, Nov. 15 (HealthDay News) -- The quality of a breast cancer patient's personal relationships may be as important as the size of her social networks in predicting survival, researchers report.
The new study included more than 2,200 women who were diagnosed with early-stage, invasive breast cancer between 1997 and 2000. After an average of 11 years follow-up, 215 of the women had died from breast cancer and 410 had died from all causes.
At the start of the study, the women provided information about their personal relationships, which were characterized as socially isolated (small social network), moderately integrated or socially integrated (large social network).
A social network includes spouses or partners, female relatives, friends, religious and social connections, and links to the community through volunteering.
Women who were socially isolated were 34 percent more likely to die from breast cancer or other causes than women who were socially integrated, the Kaiser Permanente researchers found.
The investigators also discovered that levels of support within personal relationships were important risk factors for breast cancer death.
"Women with small networks and high levels of support were not at greater risk than those with large networks, but those with small networks and low levels of support were," study lead author Candyce Kroenke, a research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research, said in a Kaiser news release.
Women with small social networks and low levels of support were 61 percent more likely to die from breast cancer and other causes than those with small social networks and greater levels of support, the study authors pointed out in the news release.
"We also found that when family relationships were less supportive, community and religious ties were critical to survival. This suggests that both the quality of relationships, rather than just the size of the network, matters to survival, and that community relationships matter when relationships with friends and family are less supportive," Kroenke added.
The study was published in the current issue of the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment.
While the study found an association between patients' social support networks and survival rates, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
-- Robert Preidt
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