It’s not stress that pushes a cancer to grow faster: it’s the feeling of helplessness that we sometimes develop when we’re facing stress. This is accompanied by abnormalities in cortisol, which when they persist can prevent the immune system from doing its work, and increase inflammation in the body. The best defense against the feeling of helplessness is to find support from people around you. 

Some people -- like “Mish”, whose letter I quote in chapter 5 of Anticancer: A new way of life – manage to endure the trials of cancer thanks to the love of a close family member. A husband, wife, daughter or son who holds your hand through every stage, and who allows you to lay your tired head on his or her shoulder, can help prevent you from feeling helpless. But recent studies show that a network of friends can sometimes play a role that is just as important, whether in cure, or survival long beyond statistical life expectancy.

In a book published this year, Jeffrey Zaslow tells the story of a group of eleven childhood friends, who scattered across the United States after leaving high school. [1] Their friendship survived almost forty years that included all the ups and downs of life -- success and failures at university, marriages, divorces, and difficulties with children. In September 2007, one of them – Kelly – was told she had breast cancer, and that she would need family support. Instead of turning to her family, however, she confided the news by email to her far-flung high-school girlfriends. She received an “instant shower” of emails, phone calls, letters, cards, packages. When her chemotherapy caused painful mouth ulcers, one of her girlfriends sent a machine to make milk-shakes to soften her mucuous membranes. Another, whose daughter had died from leukemia, knitted her a woolen hat so she wouldn’t catch cold after losing her hair. A third made pajamas from special cloth to make night sweats less unpleasant. Kelly often found it easier to talk about what she was going through to her girlfriends, rather than her doctors. “We’ve known each other so long, we can tell each other anything,” she says joyfully. [2]

Research confirms the importance of friendship. In the Nurses Health Study, a large-scale analysis of nurses in the United States, women with breast cancer who could name ten friends had four times more chance of surviving their illness than women who could not. The geographical proximity of these friendships was not significant: their protective effect seemed to stem from the simple fact of feeling connected. [3]

Friendship also plays a major role for men. In terms of protection against coronary heart disease, a Swedish study of 736 men found that friendship bonds had as strong an effect on health as the fact of being married. [4] The study found that only smoking affected health as much as the feeling of loneliness and isolation.

1. Zaslow, J., The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and Friendship. 2009, New York, NY: Penguin Group.
2. Parker-Pope, T., What Are Friends for? A Longer Life, in The New York Times. 2009: New York, USA.
3. Kroenke, C.H., et al., Social networks, social support, and survival after breast cancer diagnosis. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2006. 24(7): p. 1105-11.
4. Orth-Gomer, K., A. Rosengren, and L. Wilhelmsen, Lack of social support and incidence of coronary heart disease in middle-aged Swedish men. Psychosomatic Medicine, 1993. 55(1): p. 37-43.