Men, Women, Illness, and Caregiving: A Recipe for Divorce?

Last updated: November 20, 2009
Still Holding Hands
Image by makelessnoise used under the creative commons attribution license.

A new study published this week in the journal Cancer has doctors, patients, and families talking -- and asking hard questions -- about what happens in a couple when it's the wife, rather than the husband, who becomes ill.

Here's what researchers found when they followed 515 patients with cancer or multiple sclerosis over a period of five years.

"¢ A woman is six times more likely to end up separated or divorced soon after a diagnosis of cancer or MS than a man who becomes ill with the same disease.
"¢ In couples in which the woman fell ill, the divorce rate was more than 20 percent.
"¢ In couples in which the man got sick, the divorce rate was just 2.9 percent.
"¢ The older a woman was at the time she got sick, the more likely she was to end up alone.
"¢ However, the longer a couple had been married, the less likely they were to end up divorced.

The researchers at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Huntsman Medical Center, and Stanford University were studying a phenomenon that has already been documented in numerous other studies. It's called "partner abandonment," and sadly, it's very real. The researchers who designed the study, Marc Chamberlain, a neuro-oncologist at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, and physician Michael Glanz, of Huntsman Cancer Center, said they'd previously noticed in their practices that divorces occurred almost exclusively when women became ill.

(And yes, many news outlets covering this story are linking it to the story of John Edwards and his wife Elizabeth, and his cheating while she battled breast cancer. It's easy to see why they made the link, though cheating isn't leaving.)

The researchers also studied the effect that divorce or separation had on the MS and cancer patients, and found that their ability to effectively pursue treatment was affected by the loss of their relationship. Women who end up separated or divorced while being treated for cancer or MS were more likely to suffer from depression, were hospitalized more often, were less likely to join a clinical trial, and were less likely to complete radiation treatment, than women whose partners stayed with them as caregivers. They also found that women whose partners left them were less likely to die at home.

All of these facts resonate with those of us in Cancer World; I previously wrote a post about the challenges I watched a single friend face while battling breast cancer without a partner.

Rather than focus just on the disheartening aspects of this research, I think it's important to talk about why men leave, and what we can do to help them take on and succeed as caregivers. The study's authors, who are both men, commented that men's decision to leave a sick spouse can be partly explained by their lack of ability, compared to women, to make the rapid shift in commitment to being caregivers to a sick partner. The caregiving role simply doesn't come as naturally to men as it does to women, and it's easy for men to feel overwhelmed and ill equipped to handle such an enormous change in their lives.

So what can we do about that? To start, here are some tips about how to support a woman with breast cancer, many of which can be generalized to other types of cancer and other illnesses.

But what I'd really like is to hear from those of you, women and men, in the midst of illness and caregiving. What makes some men panic when suddenly finding themselves caring for an ill spouse, and how can we help prevent this from happening? A wonderful, devoted husband commented on Wednesday's post about mammograms, detailing his wife's breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, and the fact that a mammogram may have saved her life.'s Editor in Chief, Jim Scott, helped found after caring for his wife until her death from cancer in 2007. And there are many more stories like these. With some support and education, we can help other men step into this role, and avoid the fears and temptations that have made John Edwards a household name for abandonment.

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4 Comments So Far. Add Your Wisdom.

Anonymous said 5 months ago

Two months after we got married I was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease at age 63. My wife said she felt cheated...that we didn't have enough time together yet. Within a month or so she indicated she never wanted to be a caregiver. I asked her about a month later "if she knew I had Parkinson's before we got married, would she have married me" and she said NO. That all started over 3 1/2 years ago. I have not ever needed caregiving and don't foresee it anytime soon, yet we have been separated for over 10 months and will most likely get a divorce. I actually understand. I have seen what the possibilities are, yet it does hurt.

about 4 years ago

I am in an unusual situation... I am the husband of 18 years (two teenage kids). My wife had ovarian cancer (IIIC), and I shared caregiving duties with a female family friend who came to stay with us. Our marriage was in difficult straits before the diagnosis, and I did begin an emotional (but not at all physical) relationship with a distant female friend. Leaned on her during the marriage problems and the cancer problems, as well as the post-cancer problems - my wife came out of it trying to shed herself of stressful things (including me, I was told). Anyhow, the emotional relationship was discovered while I was on a business trip (not with the other person), and within 4 days, I was served with divorce papers. It seemed very quick to me, and very extreme as I didn't break the "rules" from a male perspective (no actual, virtual, or imaginary physical relationship of any kind). Just a warm friend who was able to keep my heart whole as my wife was breaking it, both through her illness and her behavior. The visiting friend is still there helping - actually, it feels as if she's taking my place - and I'm looking at a divorce at a very difficult time in our lives. I feel almost like she "smoked me down to the filter" and chucked me out the car window - and that this family is being driven off a cliff rapidly. I am responsible for the emotional relationship, I understand that, and all I can say was that it provided me comfort that was unavailable at home, either before discovery of the illness or for a goodly period of time thereafter. But I also feel that in times like these, families should heal - themselves and each other - as going through the disease and its treatment were beyond hell. It is really heartbreaking to me - but all I get from her is that I'm lying (which I'm not).

about 4 years ago

Too much stress on a relationship is not good and while I am no advocate divorce I do feel that sometimes it is inevitable. I tried everything I could to save my marriage and it didn't work. Now I am a single Dad (yes I have full custody) with 3 kids. The divorce was hard on them but they are so much better off now. I got a lot of information and <a href="">advice for divorce</a> from

almost 5 years ago

In 2007 I was diagnosed with tongue cancer (NEVER SMOKED!). Naturally at first my husband of 26 years was devastated but I told him I was not about to give up and die. I had too much to live for(him and our two teenagers) and he needed to help me thru it and did he ever! I had several surgeries,including the removal of most of my tongue, chemo,& radiation. My husband was extremely supportive and was with me through everything-driving to the cancer center(150 miles away), bringing me to every radiation treatment, stopping along the way so I could be sick to my stomach-everything. He took over bill paying, fielding phone calls, total kid duty(school, practices, meals). The cancer now thank God is gone but there are so many left over effects(cant eat, cant speak right, chemo affected hearing....) but my husband is still here and still makes me smile when I'm feeling overwhelmed, I couldn't have made it without his love and support.

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