Breast Cancer And Divorce: The Struggle To Embrace Hope After Double Loss

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Cancer changes you. Whatever age you are when you receive your diagnosis, whatever type of cancer you have, and whatever your prognosis, one thing is for sure: things will be different from now on.

And while you realize that there will be changes, those changes can still leave you reeling. When the dust settles and you start to figure out your new normal, there may be new people next to you on your journey. People who were just acquaintances may have stepped up and become dear friends. Dear friends may have become indispensable. And maybe the people you thought would always be by your side are now gone.

A serious illness puts extreme stress on a relationship, and each partner will face his or her own challenges. Dr. Peter Edelstein, author of Own Your Cancer: A Take-Charge Guide for the Recently Diagnosed and Those Who Love Them, says that marriages may be strengthened when spouses face the threat of cancer together. Some struggling marriages may actually improve when a serious illness forces them to focus on what’s really important.

A partner can be a cancer patient’s biggest supporter. “I trust him more than ever before,” breast cancer survivor Jennifer White said of her husband, “because we’ve been through the worst together and he’s still here.”

Going through cancer doesn’t always mean a relationship will be stronger in the end. Sometimes cancer can lead people in different directions, and a relationship that worked before cancer may no longer be viable.

How Cancer Challenges Relationships

Divorce or separation does not seem to be caused by a serious illness in and of itself. The strain of the illness can exacerbate problems that already existed in the relationship. Problems that were easily ignored in easier times may be magnified if one partner is sick.

When a couple faces an illness that threatens their entire way of life, there are going to be feelings of anger, fear, helplessness, bitterness, and a double helping of exhaustion. While a couple wades through these feelings, they are also faced with new roles they have to fill (or can’t fill), financial strain, and an uncertain future.

Partners may struggle with their new roles and feel inadequate—or overwhelmed. If there were underlying problems in a relationship before an illness, the added strain may be too much. As partners face the reality of their own or their partner’s mortality, what they really want in life and what they’re willing to give up come into sharp focus.

Difference in Divorce Rates in Female and Male Patients

A Seattle Oncologist, Dr. Marc Chamberlain, noticed a disturbing trend in the patients he was treating: it seemed like women were less well-supported by their partners than men were while undergoing treatment for serious illnesses. So he led a study that compared the divorce and separation rates in couples where one partner received a brain tumor or multiple sclerosis diagnosis. The study looked at 515 couples, and 53% of the actual patients (the partners being treated) were female. The study found that couples were far more likely to separate if the female partner was the one being treated.

The study group overall had a separation rate similar to the general population (about 12%), but when broken down by sex, researchers found that couples were over 6 times more likely to separate if the sick partner was female. When the male in a female/male relationship became ill, only about 3% of the couples separated. But about 21% of couples separated when it was the woman who became ill.

Iowa State researchers found a similar disparity in a study examining the divorce rates where one partner had a stroke or was diagnosed with cancer, heart disease, or lung disease. In their study, illness in the wife was linked to a 6% higher risk of divorce than illness in the husband.

“NEXT” for the reasoning behind the different divorce rates

Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.
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