Social Interaction Among Patients During Chemotherapy Affects Treatment Response

Social interaction during chemotherapy treatments can positively influence a cancer patient’s health through improving patient outcomes and patient survival rates.

Social interaction during chemotherapy treatments can positively influence a cancer patient’s health through improving patient outcomes and patient survival rates.

The study, conducted by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) from January 1, 2000, to January 1, 2009, involved 4691 cancer patients who were being treated with chemotherapy in a single outpatient ward. The researchers calculated social influence through the total weighted co-presence among patients, meaning the total time a patient spent with other patients being treated with chemotherapy.

“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,” said Jeff Lienert, the lead author in NHGRI’s Social Behavioral Research Branch and National Institutes of Health Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program fellow. “We used ‘time spent getting chemotherapy in a room with others’ as a proxy for social connection.”

The primary outcome was a patient’s 5-year survival rate which is often regarded as the standard in cancer research. This was determined by the percentage of people who live at least 5 years following the completion of chemotherapy treatment.

The study found that when a patient interacted with someone who died fewer than 5 years post-chemotherapy, they had a 72% chance of also dying within the 5-year period after treatment. However, when patients interacted with someone who survived at least 5 years, their chance of dying within 5 years was at 68%. Furthermore, the researchers predicted that isolated patients had a 69.5% chance of death in the 5 years.

“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 stated. “If you saw 5000 patients in 9 years, that 2% improvement would affect 100 people.”

The researchers suggest that oncologists consider the social influence by attempting to maximize co-presence among patients through scheduling. Also, patients should be encouraged to find social support in the chemotherapy ward in order to reduce stress.

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