Single and divorced women are just as likely to survive a battle with breast cancer as their married counterparts, a new study shows.

“For men with head and neck cancer, studies have shown that being single or having no live-in partner predicted for worse outcomes and significantly shorter survival,” says researcher Shelly Hayes, MD, a radiation oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

“But for women with breast cancer, marital status did not matter,” she tells WebMD.

The findings, presented at the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology 47th Annual Meeting, fly in the face of previous studies that had suggested married men with cancer live longer.

However the researchers do show that a woman’s age was a predictor of survival without breast cancer. Women under 40 were more likely to have their cancer return than women over 70, despite similar cancer characteristics and treatments.

Learn More About Breast Cancer Screening

Breast Cancer Support Groups May Help Explain Findings

The researchers studied 2,143 women with early stage breast cancer who were treated with breast-conserving surgery and radiation between 1984 and 2003.Early breast cancer is the earliest, most treatable type of breast cancer, which is localized to the breast tissue only and lymph nodes.

The women were divided into four groups based on their marital status: 63 percent were married, 10 percent were single, 10 percent were divorced or separated, and 18 percent were widowed.

Six years after they were treated with lumpectomy and radiation, women in each of the four groups were just as likely to be alive and free of cancer, Hayes says.

As a result, recommendations for the treatment and monitoring of women with breast cancer should not be altered based on a woman’s marital status, she says.

Phillip Devlin, MD, a radiation oncologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, says it is important to perform studies like this to try to tease out factors that could be affecting survival and need to be factored in when making treatment recommendations. He tells WebMD that he would not have been surprised to find that married women have a better prognosis than single women.

“Emotional support is a big issue for women with breast cancer,” he says. “You have to get to treatment even when the treatment gets tough -- and having a spouse to help you deal with it can be a big help.”

Hayes suspects that the many support groups for women with breast cancer may help explain why their chance of survival isn’t affected by marital status. Regardless of whether they are married, “women may be able to turn to support groups for help with their condition,” she says.

The Latest Treatments for Breast Cancer

SOURCES: American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology 47th Annual Meeting, Denver, Oct. 16-20, 2005. Shelly Hayes, MD, radiation oncologist, Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia. Phillip Devlin, MD, radiation oncologist, Harvard Medical School, Boston.

By Charlene Laino, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD