In Sickness and in Health — Does a Cancer Diagnosis Up Divorce Risk?

An MSNBC blog post stirred discussion this week concerning the impact a cancer diagnosis has on relationships and marriages — is the disease the kiss of death? Does a cancer diagnosis in a woman make her partner more likely to leave?

A 2009 study from the University of Utah Medical School suggested as much: among five hundred patients with brain cancer, multiple sclerosis, or a handful of other cancers, marriages were seven times more likely to break up if it was the woman who got sick.

Overall, this study and others have not found that couples with a cancer patient are more likely to split up than non-cancer couples, but the gender disparity noted was alarming, Dr. Marc Chamberlain, chief of neuro-oncology at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and co-author of the study told

“If the diseased partner was female, then there was a much higher rate of abandonment. It’s a striking observation that’s somewhat appalling for the male gender,” said Chamberlain.

The study was not geared to say why the marriages broke up or even who was doing the leaving, but Chamberlain speculated that it might have to do with our culture’s expectation for the duties a wife performs in terms of child care, running the household and being a supporting partner.

“When that structure collapses as it does with such a devastating illness as brain cancer, it may be that men feel abandoned and feel the need to replace that elsewhere,” he said.

This change in roles can be difficult to handle for both genders, however, and anecdotally oncologists report that they see their fair share of marital difficulties regardless of the gender of the patient.

Especially in younger patients, the diagnosis can drive a wedge into the relationship, said Dr. Jay Brooks, an oncologist at Ochsner Medical Center in Baton Rouge, La.

“Many people have confided in me that once diagnosis of cancer made, they began a separation process from their spouse even in cancers with very good prognosis and cure. I think best way to handle this is to recognize and acknowledge this — speak with professional social worker about your feelings,” he said.

A quick search of cancer support forums will yield a number of stories that fit into the cancer-as-home-wrecker narrative — there’s even a website for it:, but oncologists note that the majority of what they observe in their patients is precisely the opposite:

“I also think it is important to mention those partners or spouses who often blow me away with their support,” said Dr. Jennifer Litton, an oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

“Many of my patients are young, with small children and their husbands are now doing the laundry, handling more childcare responsibilities than they have in the past and many are always there at their wife’s or partner’s appointments,” she said.