When Anna received the dreaded call from her doctor in May 2008 that she had breast cancer she thought that was worst day of her life. She was wrong. Just a month later her husband of eleven years left home forever leaving Anna to care for their eight-year-old daughter and undergo treatment alone.
According to a new study published in the Nov. 15 issue of the journal Cancer, a woman is six times more likely to be separated or divorced soon after a diagnosis of cancer or multiple sclerosis than if a man in the relationship is the patient. The study examined the role gender played in so-called "partner abandonment." However, the study also found that the longer the marriage before diagnosis, the more likely it would remain intact.
A life-threatening illness creates severe stress in people's lives that may result in marital discord, separation, or divorce and may adversely impact treatment, quality of life and survival. About 11.6 percent of cancer patients experience partner abandonment after a diagnosis, about the same as the population as a whole. For Anna, the abandonment came out of the blue. “My husband just couldn’t live with the cancer diagnosis,” she said.
The study confirmed earlier research that the overall divorce or separation rate among cancer patients was similar to the population as a whole, meaning most marriages survived, but the researchers were surprised by the difference in separation and divorce rates by gender. When the woman was the patient, the rate was 20.8 percent compared to 2.9 percent when the man was the patient.
“Being a female was the strongest predictor of separation or divorce in each of the patient groups we studied," said Marc Chamberlain, M.D., a co-corresponding author and director of the neuro-oncology program at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Michael Glanz, M.D., of the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah School of Medicine is the other co-corresponding author.