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Men More Likely than Women to Leave Sick Spouse

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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.

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HERWriter Guide

Hi Lynette - In some ways it's good to have a study that verifies this and gets it out in the open. During the years in which I worked for hospital systems I saw this play out repeatedly with seriously ill patients - many men were walking out on the women while most women were "standing by their man" no matter what.

The men typically had the higher income, greater access to legal representation, and the stronger health insurance coverage. Their actions often left the women without adequate healthcare and financial resources, and made a bad situation much worse. I would personally like to see an online Hall of Shame that identifies both men and women who abandon sick loved ones, and I would also like to see more public recognition of this situation so that abandoned women can get the help they need and deserve.
Thanks for posting this,

November 20, 2009 - 5:54pm
HERWriter Guide

These findings don't surprise me at all. I'm neither cynical nor a man-basher but my own personal experience has shown me that men are far less supportive of a sick spouse than women. I've seen many women see their spouses through decades of chronic illness but have never seen it the other way around. I'm not saying all men leave or shirk their responsibilities but the men I've been around have. It's a real shame.

November 20, 2009 - 12:16pm


This is saddening, and maddening, and leaves me shaking my head in disbelief.

This sentence: "When the woman was the patient, the rate was 20.8 percent compared to 2.9 percent when the man was the patient," just makes me want to scream.

The reasons do make sense. As women, we indeed tend to be more natural caregivers. But the disparity in numbers just stuns me.

Thanks so much for this post. I'm sure it's an eye-opener to many.

November 20, 2009 - 9:10am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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