Marital status is a relevant risk factor in considering the prognosis of patients with gastric cancer, according to research published in the Journal of Investigative Medicine.

Tumor size remained the largest contributor to overall survival, but marital status was among several other significant factors, such as age, race, gender, treatment style, and pathologic stage, that can provide insight into a patient’s likelihood of overall survival, as it does with several other cancers.

“Married patients had the best prognosis, followed by single patients, and the prognosis of separated patients was the worst,” write Lixiang Zhang and colleagues at the First Affiliated Hospital of Anhui Medical University in Hefei, China. “We speculate that this might be due to the fact that married patients had better financial conditions and emotional encouragement, while separated patients might be more likely to experience financial difficulties [and] emotional loss.”

The results were not necessarily surprising to Richard M. Peek, Jr, MD, director of the Division of Gastroenterology and a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who was not involved in the research.

“Marital status is a reflection of support systems, and a strong support system is a prognosticator for increased compliance with medical appointments and medical therapies,” Peek told Medscape Medical News. “It is something to consider when somebody is being treated for gastric cancer, because if they don’t have a strong support system — and marital status can be a proxy for that — then they may need more intensive follow-up and surveillance, for example, than somebody who does not have that support system.”

Exploring the Marital Status-Cancer Survival Connection

Gastric cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths across the world, causing 780,000 deaths in 2018, the authors note. Yet it’s difficult to accurately predict the prognosis in patients who undergo treatment for early stage gastric cancer. Previous research has found marital status to be associated with survival in prostate, cervical, and rectal cancers.

Mark A. Lewis, MD, director of gastrointestinal oncology at Intermountain Healthcare Cancer Center in Utah, told Medscape Medical News that the connection between marital status and cancer outcomes has been described previously, including in an even larger analysis using the US Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database from 2013. That study found that “unmarried patients are at significantly higher risk of presentation with metastatic cancer, undertreatment, and death resulting from their cancer.”

In this study, the researchers compared marital status and survival rates among 3647 patients with early-stage gastric cancer using data from the SEER database. The study only included patients with tumors in the lamina propria, mucosa, and submucosa and excluded those with distant metastasis or distant lymph node metastases, a second cancer, no data on chemotherapy received, or unknown survival time.

Because they were using a nomogram and building a new predictive nomogram that would include marital status, the researchers divided the patient population into a training set of 2719 patients and a testing set of 928 patients. Using overall survival as the primary endpoint, the analysis included the variables of “age at diagnosis, race, gender, tumor location, histology, grade, stage_T and stage_N, surgery in the primary site, lymph node dissection, chemotherapy, radiation, tumor size, insurance, and marital status,” the authors report.

Among the study population, 53.7% were married, 17.3% were widowed, 14% were single and never married, 7.5% were divorced, 1.1% were separated, and the status of 6.4% was unknown. Age at diagnosis, race, gender, histology, tumor grade, stage T, stage N, surgery type, tumor size, and insurance status were all significantly different between the marital status subgroups.

Married patients had the best prognosis, with an average overall survival of 72 months, compared with an average 60 months in widowed persons, the group with the poorest overall survival. Overall survival was higher in married women (76 months) than in married men (69 months). The same pattern held for women (62 months) and men (52 months) who had been widowed.

“It is worthy to note that survival was significantly better in divorced female patients than in divorced male patients,” the authors report. “Survival was better in female patients than in male patients” across all marital groups.

What Long-term Relationships Reveal

These findings do not mean that simply getting married changes one’s likelihood of survival, however. Rather, a long-term relationship is revealing about other aspects in a person’s life.

“I think it represents more stability in the supportive relationship that you need to really deal with a serious disease like cancer,” Peek said.

If a patient does not have a long-term partner, their care team can ask other questions to get a sense of what their support network is like, Peek added. “We want to know, does anybody else live in the house with them? Do they have adequate transportation? Can they make medical appointments? Do they have somebody who can help with the medical issues that are going to come up? Do they have family in the area?”

Cancer treatment requires a multidisciplinary approach, and having someone other than just the patient around to help bring together the different aspects of care from different care teams can make a difference in how the patient fares, Peek explained. Patients without a strong support system may need closer follow-up and other accommodations, he said.

Providers “may schedule their clinical appointments closer together if they don’t have a support system, or they may be able to reach out and offer transportation assistance and those kinds of things that somebody living alone may need,” Peek said. Outside resources may be a higher priority for those who lack a support system at home, he added.

Peek also noted other factors that may play a role in a patient’s survival that these researchers did not have the data to address, such as socioeconomic status, employment, alcohol use, smoking, and infection with Helicobacter pylori, the strongest known risk factor for gastric cancer.

A potentially relevant limitation of the study is that it probably has some selection bias, because the patients who were included probably had the means to have received an earlier diagnosis, said Lewis, who was not involved in the research.

“Furthermore, just in terms of the group sizes, the baseline characteristics section makes it clear that the preponderance of patients were married, lending that group more statistical weight,” Lewis said.

“Of the seven attributes in the nomogram, the impact of the marital status seems comparatively meager relative to conventional clinicopathology risk factors like T stage,” he added.

“All in all, I think this study reinforces our awareness that socioeconomic status and social determinants of health play a huge role in cancer outcomes, but it’s not entirely clear that’s modifiable just by getting married,” Lewis said. “There is a saying in oncology that ‘expensive liquor causes less cancer than cheap liquor,’ which is not negating the carcinogenicity of alcohol but rather identifying different outcomes by socioeconomic status.”

The research was funded by the Natural Science Foundation of Anhui Province. The authors report no relevant financial relationships. Peek reports no relevant financial relationships. Lewis reports receiving speaking fees for AstraZeneca/Daiichi Sankyo and having done educational videos for Astellas.

J Investig Med. Published online July 5, 2022. Article

Tara Haelle is a Dallas-based science journalist. Follow her at @tarahaelle

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