Divorce Rates Among Cancer Patients

When you exchanged wedding vows with your spouse, you promised to love, honor, and cherish each other in sickness and health. But if you became ill, would your husband stand by these promises? While you may take this fact for granted, for some women grappling with cancer, their diagnosis has led to the end of their marriage.

While divorce can happen to cancer patients of both genders, the problem of being left by a spouse seems strikingly more prevalent among females than males, according to Marc Chamberlain, MD, chief of neuro-oncology at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and a Professor of Neurology and Neurological Surgery at University of Washington School of Medicine. He and his colleagues noticed this trend among their own cancer patients and decided to take a closer look at the problem.

Researching the Divorce Trend Among People With Cancer

"We took a collection of male and female patients who were married and who were diagnosed with primary brain cancers to see what happened to their relationships over the time of the diagnosis and treatment," Chamberlain explains. The study, published in the journal Cancer in 2009, found that women with cancer were six times more likely to be abandoned by their partners than were men. They noticed a similar trend among patients in a general oncology clinic. The research also revealed that the older the woman was, the more likely it was that her marriage would end. However, longer marriages seemed to withstand the illness better. These findings appeared in the journal Cancer in 2009.

Are Gender Stereotypes to Blame?

While the study didn't analyze why men are more likely to bail on a sick spouse than women are, Chamberlain hypothesizes that the issue likely has its roots in common gender stereotypes.

"We know that men and women in relationships have very different roles," he says. Men have typically been viewed as the ones who earn the money to provide for their families, while women create the home and are the caregivers. This means that when the wife becomes ill, the husband may need to change his role in the relationship. Some men may opt out of the situation, rather then stretch themselves to fill in the gaps.

Fighting Cancer—With or Without a Spouse

This is particularly significant when you realize that having a stable support system in place makes a difference for people fighting cancer. Chamberlain refers to another study done by a different group of researchers that was published in The Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2013, which calls attention to the fact that single people with cancer don't live as long as those who are married. The reason seems to be that those not in a committed relationship are less likely to take advantage of treatment options and to comply with their doctor's recommendations. The experts believe it's not the institution of marriage itself that makes a difference but rather the support of a spouse to help make it through the challenges of treatment.

Chamberlain points out that what this means in practical terms is that if you're dealing with cancer and you're single or recently divorced, it's important not to go at it alone and instead to make an effort to take advantage of other social support and counseling options offered in your community.

Marc Chamberlain, MD, reviewed this article.



Marc Chamberlain, MD, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Phone interview Nov. 19, 2013. http://www.seattlecca.org/doctor/marc-c-chamberlain.cfm

Michael J. Glantz MD, Marc C. Chamberlain MD, Qin Liu PhD, Chung-Cheng Hsieh ScD, Keith R. Edwards MD, Alixis Van Horn RN and Lawrence Recht MD. "Gender disparity in the rate of partner abandonment in patients with serious medical illness." Cancer 115(22)(Nov. 15, 2009): 5237-5242. Accessed Nov. 19, 2013. DOI: 10.1002/cncr.24577

Ayal A. Aizer, Ming-Hui Chen, Ellen P. McCarthy, Mallika L. Mendu, Sophia Koo, Tyler J. Wilhite, Powell L. Graham, Toni K. Choueiri, Karen E. Hoffman, Neil E. Martin, Jim C. Hu and Paul L. Nguyen. "Marital Status and Survival in Patients With Cancer." Journal of Clinical Oncology. Published online Sept. 23, 2013. Accessed Nov. 19, 2013.