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.
Why The Difference?
There seems to be a lot of ideas trying to explain the disparity, but no sure answers. Some researchers theorize that men have a harder time being caregivers. Others thought that women were more likely to stay in an unhappy relationship if their partner was ill. Louise Knight, a social worker at John Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, notes that men often don’t have as strong of a social network, and without their spouse to rely on, they may feel alienated and not know how to express themselves. Other doctors suppose that men are less emotionally resilient or that they may subconsciously withdraw in order to protect themselves from the pain of a potential loss.
Dr. Chamberlain, who led the initial study, says, “The striking part is with life-threatening illness, how often women are abandoned compared to men. That does not speak very well of my gender.”
What Does This Mean For Cancer Patients?
Cancer patients need support. That much is obvious. Patients who lose a partner after a diagnosis are more likely to need antidepressants and will likely have a harder time during the recovery phase.
When Marianne went through breast cancer treatment, her husband became less and less supportive until eventually she had to go through treatment alone. She said, “It would have been easier if I were single, because then I wouldn’t have expected anything.” She says she would have been tempted to give up if it hadn’t been for the support of her children.
Cassidy, now cancer-free, shared a similar story. Her ex-husband Pete was extremely supportive at the beginning of her treatment, but he began to withdraw as time went on. She had gone from a size 6 to a size 14 due to steroid treatment, and she mentioned wanting to buy something new to wear for Easter. Pete told her that she already had a closet full of clothes. “That’s when I realized he wasn’t really there,” she said.
Cancer is devastating. The loss of a trusted partner is devastating. When both happen together, the situation can seem dark and hopeless. But cancer can also reveal a strength in a person that they didn’t know they had, and that strength can help them survive overwhelming challenges. And sometimes, cancer can give someone the strength to realize that ending a relationship is the best choice for their life.
Taking Different Paths
Cancer and other serious illnesses have an incredible ability to provide focus. Oncologist Dr. Schapira says that she’s seen cancer survivors finally find the courage to leave unhappy marriages. “The spouse who had cancer often cannot ‘snap back’ to pre-cancer mode. She or he may… in some cases, not be exactly the ‘same person’ as before,” she says. A cancer diagnosis can motivate someone to make their lives healthier in all aspects, and that may include leaving an unhealthy relationship. Or, if a patient finds new meaning and a new direction in life that their partner doesn’t share, the relationship may need to end.
Holly Tegeler Morgan, a blogger for Pink Lotus, was crushed when her husband had an affair while she went through cancer treatment. After discovering the affair, she says, “I took the next 5 weeks to think, to soul search… and to make a plan. I was leaving. I did not beat cancer to live so miserably!” She says that when she looks back she can see that she should have left her marriage earlier, but it took cancer to open her eyes.
Cancer patients often recommit to living their best life, and that sometimes means saying goodbye to a partner. Or, if a partner has said goodbye to them, fighting cancer may give them the strength to keep going.
Any separation from someone close, even if it’s for the best, is painful. It’s vital that anyone going through cancer surround themselves with supporters and champions, especially when previous support is absent.
“Remember what makes you happy, joyful, and positive. You don’t have to stay stuck in this place,” says Toby Dauber, LCSW, to her patients fighting chronic illness. She encourages those struggling to reach out for help, both personal and professional. Therapists, support groups, family members, social workers, and even coworkers can provide support for cancer patients.
It’s important to believe that things can get better. Find something, even if it’s small, that inspires joy and gratitude, and remember that there are so many inspiring fighters who’ve gone before you and want to see you make it! Celebrate small victories and surround yourself with people and things that inspire you. Keep fighting, friends.
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.