Close relationships tied to ovarian cancer survival

A man wears a teal ribbon in honor of women who have lost the battle with ovarian cancer. (Lisa Maree Williams, Getty Images)

"That means having someone who can provide concrete support," Lutgendorf explained. "Do you have someone who can take you to and from doctor visits? Do you have someone who can get your groceries?"

She said it was surprising that type of support was not also linked to survival.

What does it all mean for women with ovarian cancer?

"Many women have wonderful support from family and friends," Lutgendorf said. "But if you think you need more support, you can reach out."

Cancer centers often have "wellness" services that offer support groups or other types of psychological and emotional help, Lutgendorf noted. There are also national resources, like the American Cancer Society.

Lutgendorf said doctors can also ask cancer patients about their relationships - whether they have "someone they can talk to," for instance. Doctors often do screening for depression, she noted, so they could ask about emotional support as well.

Support groups can indeed be helpful to patients who are interested, according to Coyne. But don't expect them to prolong your life, he said.

Coyne said that if he were to study the issue, he'd want to follow a larger group of women over time. He would want to monitor any "medically significant events" and see how social relationships helped women deal with those health problems.

"My basic hypothesis would be that women who have close relationships have more opportunities to be vigilant for and address surgical complications, (other concurrent illnesses) and signs of (cancer) recurrence in a timely fashion," Coyne said.

He was critical of the theory that emotional bonds could have effects on the immune system that boost cancer survival. For one, Coyne said, it's not clear yet whether and how various "immunological variables" affect cancer progression.

He cautioned against raising people's hopes on that front.

"Cancer patients are particularly vulnerable to unrealistic expectations that they can extend their life by strengthening their immune systems," Coyne said.

SOURCE: Journal of Clinical Oncology, online July 16, 2012.