Cancer treatment may be less aggressive if you’re not part of a couple. 

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Cancer treatment may be less aggressive if you’re not part of a couple. 

Studies suggest marital status can matter, especially if doctors think you’re alone and lack a support network.

If you are divorced, widowed or never married and develop cancer, watch out. You may get less aggressive treatment than your married friends.

We’ve often heard about studies showing that married adults are more likely to survive cancer than singles. But buried in those same studies is another finding that hasn’t made the headlines. When surgery or radiotherapy is the treatment of choice, patients with spouses are more likely to get it.

I had no idea that marital status might affect medical care until an oncologist, talking about what treatment to give me, asked if I have a spouse or children. When I said no to both, he looked genuinely concerned. “But how will you manage?” he asked. He then proposed to give me only one mild drug, although the standard of care was a much harsher — and more effective — combination chemotherapy. When I tried to describe my strong network of friends and extended family, he talked right over me.

If I hadn’t moved on to another oncologist who gave me the recommended treatment, I probably wouldn’t have survived.

As an experienced researcher, I was curious. Was this just a freaky personal experience, or are single patients often treated less aggressively?

To learn what cancer experts have to say about that, I reviewed 59 studies based on the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER), a massive database maintained by the National Cancer Institute. Cumulatively, these studies cover 7,331,695 patients with 28 kinds of cancer.

With a background in literature, psychology and law, I wasn’t about to comment on oncological findings or statistical methodology. But when study after study reported significant differences in treatment rates between married and unmarried patients, I did want to know how the authors explain that discrepancy.

Read on: Cancer treatment may be less aggressive if you're not part of a couple.

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