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SALT LAKE CITY — Margaret Monson's family might have saved her from dying of breast cancer.
A study published last week found that women diagnosed with early-stage, invasive breast cancer who were socially isolated were 34 percent more likely to die from the disease than "socially integrated women." Scientists worked with 2,264 women from the Kaiser Permanente cancer registry and the Utah Cancer Registry and found that the quality of a woman's network was just as important as the size of those networks when predicting survival.
Whether those ties were to a spouse or family member, friend or partner — even religious — it didn't matter. In fact, when family or marital relationships were weak, community relationships became more important.
Monson said that when she first suspected a lump in her breast may be cancerous, just before Christmas 2008, she was hesitant to alarm her family. Her mother had recently passed away from lung cancer, and her father had fought cancer 15 years prior.
- 230,480: Estimated number of women to be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011
- 39,520: Estimated number of women who will die of breast cancer in 2011
- 83%: Estimated breast cancer survival rate for 2011
The then 34-year-old underwent the first round of tests with her husband by her side, but soon decided she needed more support for the diagnosis.
"(I said,) 'we need family support. We need to tell. We need other people to help us to get along the way,' " Monson said.
The Monday after Christmas, Monson's diagnosis came back positive for stage 3.2 breast cancer. Two weeks later, she found out she was four weeks pregnant.
Her oncologist advised her to terminate the pregnancy and begin treatment immediately. But she wanted to keep the baby. The couple turned to family and friends for support.
"The support of the family and our friends came in and was so needed. I was just so grateful for everybody praying and fasting," Monson said. "That is something that helped us at the time about what to do about the baby. I don't even know how to explain it... there was a blanket of warmth around us that we would be OK if we kept the baby."
The couple decided to go forward with the pregnancy and Monson began what cancer treatment she could do safely. On Jan. 21, 2009, she had a mastectomy to remove the tumor. Once her first trimester of pregnancy concluded, she was able to begin limited chemotherapy.
Later that year, she delivered a healthy baby boy.
I've let them live with me; just to let them know enough and understand enough so they were a part of it with me and to understand what I was going through.
Her sisters helped throughout treatment, taking her to doctor's appointments, asking questions, and holding her hand through treatment sessions.
When she began to lose her hair from chemotherapy, her family helped her shave her head. When they finished her thinning hair, two of her sisters shaved their full heads of hair as well.
"That was easier for me than finding a wig," she said.
The authors of the study say feeling close to family and friends is key to survival. They noted that these findings may help the medical community design interventions that connect women with support systems, be they a formal breast cancer support group or other community groups.
Perhaps, Monson said, what people can do for you is to just get your mind off the sickness.
Her family's willingness to sacrifice and attempt to empathize helped her keep a positive attitude and focus on things besides getting well.
"I've let them live with me; just to let them know enough and understand enough so they were a part of it with me and to understand what I was going through," Monson said. "Just to be there, yet to make fun also. To be happy and to know that's not the only thing that's going. We had the fun of going through pregnancy as well even though it wasn't a normal one. Just to have other things to talk about."