A new report suggesting that loneliness trebles the odds of developing breast cancer is the latest addition to a long list of recognised risk factors — such as being tall or having one breast bigger than the other — that cause widespread anxiety but do precious little to help in the fight against the disease.
My advice to the millions of British women who are single, separated, divorced or widowed is to take this news with a pinch of salt, not least because the link between loneliness and breast cancer is an overenthusiastic extrapolation of a study on laboratory rats.
Researchers from the University of Chicago found that rats kept in solitary confinement and subjected to stressors, such as being held down or exposed to the scent of a cat, were more likely to develop breast tumours than those living together. Ergo, loneliness in human beings must have the same effect. Er, no.
Stress and social isolation are a toxic combination that can precipitate or worsen myriad health issues from depression to high blood pressure, but existing research suggests that breast cancer may not be among them. “Real world” studies — looking at women rather than laboratory rats — suggest that stress does not significantly increase a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer, or increase the odds of recurrence in those in whom it has formerly been diagnosed.
So what should women be worrying about? A bust that is not perfectly symmetrical? Being tall? Starting your periods early and going through the menopause late? Or being born into a professional family? All of these increase a woman’s odds of developing breast cancer but there is nothing she can do about any of them. And, frankly, they are not that important anyway.