Researchers have developed a new method to measure social networks of adolescent and young adult (AYA) cancer survivors.
This method indicated that AYA cancer survivors often have stronger social networks than their non-cancer peers.
However, the strength of the social network varied by diagnosis, with the lymphoma and leukemia survivors having the greatest support.
These findings were published in Cancer.
“Cancer survivors need healthy social connections, and, to the best of our knowledge, this is the first published study to quantify social networks of adolescent and young adult cancer survivors compared to their peers,” said study author I-Chan Huang, PhD, of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
“The study introduces a method we developed and validated for evaluating social networks of these cancer survivors.”
The method, called the functional social network index (FSNI), measures marital status, contact frequency with friends and relatives, and available resources for health support/advice, which includes emotional support, tangible support, physical activity advice, and weight management advice.
The researchers compared the FSNI to a pair of traditional social network indices—density and betweenness centrality.
Density represents the ratio of the existing relationships/connections within a network to all possible relationships/connections. And betweenness centrality represents the ratio of the existing shortest paths between 2 friends/relatives of the study participants to the shortest possible paths between 2 friends/relatives.
The researchers used the 3 social network indices to analyze 102 AYA cancer survivors, ages 18 to 30, and 102 young adults with no cancer history who were matched to the survivors by age, sex, and race.
Subjects were recruited from a commercial national Internet survey panel. They reported detailed social connection information with up to 25 friends and relatives.
The cancer survivors were between 15 and 30 years old when their cancer was diagnosed, and all had completed treatment at least 5 years prior.
Neither the density index nor the betweenness centrality index demonstrated significant differences between cancer survivors and controls (all P values were less than 0.05).
However, according to the FSNI, cancer survivors had more available resources for emotional support (beta [b]=3.02; P=0.003), tangible support (b=4.17; P<0.001), physical activity advice (b=3.94; P<0.001), and weight management advice (b=4.10; P<0.001).
“This makes sense,” Dr Huang said. “Because of their cancer, survivors often have strong networks of physicians, friends, and relatives to provide advice and support.”
However, the FSNI showed the strength of cancer survivors’ support network varied by diagnosis.
Lymphoma survivors ranked highest on the FSNI (b=2.765; P=0.02), followed by survivors of leukemia (b=2.542; P=0.03) and solid tumors (b=2.178; P=0.047), with central nervous system malignancies as the reference.
The researchers also found a higher FSNI was associated with better coping skills, including using emotional support (b=0.08; P=0.04), using instrumental support (b=0.12; P<0.001), venting of emotions (b=0.10; P=0.004), positive reframing (b=0.12; P=0.003), planning for the future (b=0.08; P=0.03), participating in religious activities (b=0.16; P<0.001), and less denial (b=0.10; P=0.01) and destructive behavior (b=0.08; P=0.04).
The researchers said long-term follow-up is needed to understand how social networks and social support may change over time.
“Adolescents and young adult cancer survivors are in a transitory stage of independence from parents,” Dr Huang said. “While this study suggests that survivors often report strong social connections, our previous studies have reported that childhood cancer survivors are more likely than their peers to struggle mentally and physically and report issues like distress and loneliness.”
Dr Huang and his colleagues are working to streamline the FSNI to make it easier for healthcare providers to assess support available to cancer survivors of any age.
Meanwhile, researchers are working to better understand how social connections affect health outcomes in order to design interventions to foster those connections.
“A lack of social connections with friends and relatives is associated with poor quality of life, risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, and premature death,” Dr Huang said. “Once we identify the mechanism between social connections and health outcomes, we can start designing interventions to use social networks to improve health outcomes of cancer survivors.”