Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

They Survived Cancer, Only to Get Bashed by Singlism

CNN: Sure, you survived cancer, but you’re still single.

The headline on CNN blared, "Childhood cancer survivors less likely to marry." Given just that headline, and knowing nothing else about the study, (a) How would you write the story? And (b) What's your guess about how the story was actually written?

Let's take the second question first because it is so easy. Singlism so suffuses our conventional wisdom and suffocates our reasoning capacities that of course the article will devolve into the question, "What's WRONG with these childhood cancer survivors that they don't manage to marry as often as their siblings or others similar to them in the general population?" Then off it will go on a search for unmarried cancer survivors' fatal flaws. That, of course, is exactly what happened, as I will detail below.

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The assumption is the typical fuzzy-headed one that of course everyone wants to marry and if they don't, it's because there is something wrong with them. The reporter should have tipped herself off when she said this in her story: "researchers did not directly ask participants why they did or did not get married." Maybe a light would have gone off in her head if a remarkable finding from the Shriver Report survey had not been buried in all of the media reports - namely, that Americans rank marriage last in importance, behind health, self-sufficiency, financial security, a fulfilling job, religious faith, and children.

Often, stories on potentially terrifying life events, such as cancer or abuse or abandonment or wrongful imprisonment, reach for the life-affirming possibilities. The survivors stand back and think seriously about what they really want in their lives, apart from what other people think they should want or what the conventional wisdom dictates. That, to me, would have been an intriguing possibility to ponder in this story about how childhood cancer survivors are less likely to marry. Maybe they thought hard about what they really want to do in their lives, and decided that marriage wasn't it.

I'm not claiming that my own take on the findings is correct. It may or may not be. But I AM insisting that some possibilities should have been entertained other than a hunt for the flaws in the cancer survivors who stayed single.

The singles-bashing that was perpetrated in this CNN story was truly amazing. Before I elaborate, though, let me say a bit more about the study.

The Study and What It Really Did Show

As Living Single readers know, I am an advocate of reading studies in their original form - and not just the press releases or media reports - before discussing them. In this case, without paying, I could access only the abstract, and not the full report. So keep that in mind. Still, even comparing just the abstract to the CNN story reveals some jarring problems with the reporting.

The study compared the marriage rates of 8,928 adult survivors of childhood cancer to the marriage rates of 2,879 of their siblings and of comparable people in the general population. The cancer survivors were 21% more likely to be single than their siblings, and 25% more likely than similar others in the general population. Importantly, cancer survivors who did marry were no more likely to divorce than were the comparison persons.

Not all childhood cancers predicted lower rates of marriage. Central nervous system tumors did. Some cancers only predicted lower rates of marriage if the survivors had radiation to the brain.

The study authors also examined some physical characteristics and other aspects of functioning to see whether any of them were linked to rates of marrying. They found that shorter people were less likely to marry (they note that this is also true in the general population, not just for cancer survivors), and have lower levels of physical functioning and task efficiency. They also discovered that people who stayed single:
• Were no more likely to be emotionally distressed
• Were no more likely to have problems regulating their emotions
• Were no more likely to have memory problems
• Were no more likely to have difficulties with organization

Back to How CNN Reported the Results

Consider this paragraph from the CNN story:

"Factors that may have influenced the single status of childhood cancer survivors included short stature, history of tumor recurrence, poor self-reported physical functioning, emotional distress, problems with task efficiency, problems with organization, and problems with memory, the study said. Perceived fertility factors may also factor in, it said."

Yes, those were the factors that were EXAMINED. What the CNN story never does go on to specify is that some of these factors turned out to have nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not a person in the study got married.

The CNN reporter noted that speed of processing information did predict marriage rates. She interviewed one of the study authors, Dr. Nina Kadan-Lottick, who speculated that processing information quickly may be important to relationships. The doctor then added this:

"This [processing speed] may also be an indication - a wider indication - of being able to get your life in order, so to speak, to live independently, to do things like get married and live your own life."

If you are not now gasping at what you just read, read it again. My colleagues and I have spent years researching perceptions and stereotypes of people who are single. In so many ways, single people are viewed more negatively than married people, even in our studies in which we create profiles of people who are exactly the same in every way except that one is said to be married and the other single. But there is a consistent exception: In study after study, men and women, people of different ages and relationship statuses, and people in different countries all believe that single people are more independent than married people.

Yet so desperate is the author of the cancer study to claim that staying single is a bad thing, that she actually suggests that getting married is a better indicator of the ability to live independently than is staying single. And the reporter just dumps that statement into her story and moves on.

Jessica Brown, the Living Single reader who alerted me to the CNN story (thanks, Jessica!) asked why anyone would care if a young cancer survivor married or not. I think that is a particularly interesting question in light of the other studies reported in the very same issue of the same journal. Reporters who perused the table of contents would have found reports of studies of racial and ethnic differences in cancer survival rates, and of links between obesity, socio-economic status, smoking, alcohol use, and various cancers. They would have found a report of the cost-effectiveness of a certain surgery for a particular cancer. Screw all that. The headline was, "Childhood cancer survivors less likely to marry."

Some cancer survivors do want to marry, just as some want to have kids or pursue various educational degrees, careers, or other passionate interests and concerns. Why don't we aspire to ensure that cancer survivors can pursue their life goals just as effectively as anyone else, regardless of whether those goals include marrying?

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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