Social Human Behavior Helps Chemotherapy

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Social Human Behavior Helps Chemotherapy

Photo by: Linda Bartlett via Wikimedia Commons

A new study conducted by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom revealed how chemotherapy can be affected by human behavior. The NHGRI findings were recently published online in the journal Network Science last July 12 2017.

Researchers have determined how social interaction could be an important part of a patients’ success during the chemotherapeutic phase of their treatment, determining that cancer patients were somewhat more likely to survive for five years or more after chemotherapy when they interacted during their chemotherapy with other patients who also survived for five years or more. Patients were a little more likely to die in less than five years after chemotherapy when they interacted during chemotherapy compared to those that died in less than five years.

Lead Author of NHGRI's Social and Behavioral Research Branch and a National Institutes of Health Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program fellow Jeff Lienert says "People model behavior based on what's around them.” Lienert explained “For example, you will often eat more when you're dining with friends, even if you can't see what they're eating. When you're bicycling, you will often perform better when you're cycling with others, regardless of their performance."

Lienert had the impetus to find out if this behavior extended to those suffering from cancer who were undergoing chemo treatments.  

Teaming with Lienert were his advisor Felix Reed-Tsochas, Ph.D., at Oxford's CABDyN Complexity Centre at the Said Business School, Laura Koehly, Ph.D., chief of NHGRI's Social and Behavioral Research Branch, and Christopher Marcum, Ph.D., a staff scientist also in the Social and Behavioral Research Branch.

Electronic medical records between 2000 and 2009 from two prominent hospitals in the UK’s National Health Service were combed through by the research team.  They studied how much total time each patient spent with other patients in the same situation and their subsequent five-year survival rate.  The five-year survival rate is the percentage of people who live at least five years after chemotherapy treatment is completed. For example, a five-year survival rate of 70 percent means that an estimated 70 out of 100 people are still alive five years after chemotherapy.

Lienert explained "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." also stating "We used 'time spent getting chemotherapy in a room with others' as a proxy for social connection."

Photo by:Bill Branson via Wikimedia Commons

The results  concluded that when patients interacted with those who died in less than five years following therapy had a 72 percent chance of dying within five years following their own chemotherapy.

The most positive outcomes were in those who interacted with survivors of five years or more.  This group had a 68 percent chance of dying within five years.

The researchers' model also predicted that if patients were isolated from other patients, they would have a 69.5 percent chance of dying within five years.  Lienert said "A two percent difference in survival - between being isolated during treatment and being with other patients, might not sound like a lot, but it's pretty substantial.”  he added, "If you saw 5,000 patients in 9 years, that two percent improvement would affect 100 people."

Laura Koehly had this to say after the study "Mr. Lienert's research is the first to investigate, on a large scale, how social context in a treatment setting can play a significant role in disease outcomes," she also said "As cancer care moves more towards targeted therapies based on genomic tumor assessments, NHGRI is interested in understanding how these social environmental factors might impact treatment efficacy."

The research project didn’t cover the “why” factor but their opinions about “why” support the stress response factor.  Lienert remarked "When you're stressed, stress hormones such as adrenaline are released, resulting in a fight or flight response," stating "If you are then unable to fight or fly, such as in chemotherapy, these hormones can build up."

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

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