Divorce rate higher for terminal cancer patients
By Elizabeth Cohen
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Terminally ill cancer patients have a higher-than-average divorce rate, and it's almost always the husband leaving his sick wife, according to a study presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
"When the woman was affected by the brain tumor, the men left the marriage with really alarming regularity," said Dr. Mike Glantz, a neuro-oncologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and co-author of the study. "It didn't seem to happen when the men were the ones stricken by the disease. The women stayed."
The study was presented at the society's meeting in San Francisco this weekend.
Other oncologists, as well as people who lead cancer support groups, said they were not at all surprised by the study results.
"In our support group, six of us were married at the time of diagnosis and three are now divorced," said Sharon Miller, a breast cancer patient and a volunteer hotline counselor for the Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization in Chicago. "I can tell you story after story after story." In the study, conducted by Glantz and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, 214 married people were diagnosed with gliomas, a type of brain tumor that usually kills within a year. Within the year, 23 got divorced. That rate is six times higher than the control group used in the study, which was patients with multiple sclerosis. In 18 of the 23 cases, the wife had the brain tumor.
Glantz, a neuro-oncologist, said he thinks men aren't emotionally prepared for the double whammy of having to care for a sick wife and having to take over the work -- such as cleaning the house or picking up the children from school -- that she used to do. "In our culture, men just aren't accustomed, aren't trained, aren't exposed to being the primary caregiver in the setting of a devastating illness," he said. "There have been a lot of books recently about wives or daughters who have left very high caliber jobs to take care of a sick father or sick husband. You almost never hear that about the man, leaving a job to go back home and take care of a sick parent."
Miller, a registered nurse who said her own marriage ended in divorce after her diagnosis, said women are often more upset about the end of their marriages than they are about having breast cancer.
"One woman in our support group last night was in tears because she went through all this chemo and her boyfriend of three years broke up with her. He said he couldn't handle having a sick girlfriend," Miller said.
"When [men] see a very healthy strong woman now all of a sudden have major surgery, lose their hair, be sick, be emotionally distressed, I think it's easy for them to just leave the distressing situation rather than hang in there," she said.
Miller added that a cancer diagnosis isn't always a death sentence for a marriage. "It's just so touching to hear about the women whose relationships have gotten stronger because of breast cancer," she said. "Tears come to their eyes. They say, 'This guy was there for me every step of the way -- I couldn't have done it without him.' "
But when a husband does leave, it can mean a turn for the worse for a woman -- not just emotionally, but physically as well -- if she has no other family living nearby.
"They say, 'I just can't come in for treatment; it's not that I want to give up, but how can I get there,' " Glantz said. "So, prematurely, we end up having to change our therapy, change our focus, to just support and not treatment anymore."
Sometimes even women who do stay married avoid a certain treatment for fear it will prevent them from taking care of their husbands, according to Judy Perotti, director of patient services for Y-ME. "Women call and say, 'I'm gonna have a mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy and radiation because I'd have to go to the radiologist once a day for six weeks and I can't do that,' " she said. "It's a very gross generalization, but it does still have some truth: women are still -- in the vast majority of families -- considered the primary caretaker, and that's our role."
Perotti said counselors at Y-ME try to be sensitive to women's value systems when counseling them. "We very gently tell them, 'If you don't go [and get treatment] and you die, who's going to take care of your husband?"
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