50 Percent of Couples Break Up During a Cancer Diagnosis
Why isn’t there a warning label that comes with cancer: Caution, your romantic relationship may terminate from your diagnosis! Sitting in my oncologist’s waiting room, the pamphlets feature head-wrapped women surrounded by comforting family, none highlighted phone numbers of couples counseling. Why isn’t the rate of break-up mentioned during a breast cancer diagnosis, and how come help isn’t offered at the onset of a diagnosis? At my follow-up with breast surgeon Dr. Michele Blackwood, she learned of the recent demise of my relationship and wasn’t surprised, stating 50% of couples break up during a cancer diagnosis. Shocked at the statistics and feeling cheated my ex and I weren’t armed with the tools, I set off on some research, hoping to enlighten the effected couples that come after me.
The Huffington Post’s Divorce and Breast Cancer: Your Marriage or Your Life, Amanda Deverich reports “At first, (Helen’s) husband, Wally, joined her in the fight for survival, but the conflict proved too much and he pulled out.” I can relate, my boyfriend at the time started out by saying he was with me 1,000% during treatment, but his promise quickly disintegrated and our relationship suffered, as his words did not match his actions. ‘Being with a patient in treatment is more than driving to the appointment, sitting in the waiting room, and wishing it was over for everyone. Being with a patient is participating in the moment and setting your own uncomfortable, bored, or inconvenienced feelings aside. It tests a relationship,’ expresses the #BCSurvivor. Frequently, my partner told me there wasn’t enough time in the day for him to work, exercise and emotionally support me, so he withdrew. Maybe he underestimated the strength and pace needed for the long haul, and needed to ask for support for himself as he tried to handle so much responsibility. He was gone twelve hours a day, so I leaned on many friends and organizations, but I did wish my partner to be there in a loving, supportive, non-volatile way.
“Cancer throws a lot at a couple…research suggests that women are more likely than men to be victims of what’s known as partner abandonment… even worse, emotional detachment.” Marianne, in the CNN article When Spouse gets Sick — Who Leaves? states, “’When I met Gregory I was very successful in my career, I was a prominent person in my community, I had a beautiful home. When a year later, I became a sick, disfigured, needy woman, Gregory was like ‘This is not what I signed up for.’” The first two years of our relationship, my tall, athletic body was toped off with long, Barbie-like blonde hair; I looked good in his Porsche. It wasn’t until the threat of my disfigurement and the stripping of my mane, my confidence and my income did his emotional commitment detour. Hospitals and oncology practices may want to consider including social workers and family therapists as part of a patient’s health care team.
Divorce Risk Higher When Wife Gets Sick, The New York Times describes the 2009 Cancer study entitled Gender Disparity in the Rate of Partner Abandonment in Patients with Serious Medical Illness by oncologists Dr. Marc Chamberlain, Dr. Michael J. Glantz and three other colleagues. Their study consisted of collecting data on 515 patients who received a diagnosis of brain tumors or multiple sclerosis from 2001 through 2006. Women in the study who were told they had a serious illness were seven times as likely to become separated or divorced as men with similar health problems, according to the report published in the journal Cancer. When the men became ill, only 3 percent experienced the end of a marriage, but among women, about 21 percent ended up separated or divorced. Dr. Chamberlain speculated that differences in male and female roles in the family could explain the trend, ‘There clearly is an emotional attachment women have to spouse, family and home that in times of stress causes women to hunker down and deal with it, while men tend to flee.’
Scientists point to a few possible explanations for the disparity. Chamberlain adds that the demands of a spouse’s illness can interfere with one’s ability to earn a living, which may be harder for men to swallow — or afford. Dr. Jimmie Holland, a psycho-oncologist at MSK in New York notes that caregivers fill a larger role than ever. ‘In the past, a person would stay at the hospital for weeks. Now people come home with wounds that need to be cleaned, and all kinds of other things we once used to think only nurses do.’ This difficult job grows even tougher in the absence of emotional support. While women turn to friends, counselors, or groups for the help they need, men don’t. ‘For one, being a caregiver is not a traditional role for men,’ emphasizes Dr. Marc Chamberlain. ‘The majority of husbands take excellent care of their partners, but men on the whole tend to be less comfortable doing so.’
Diana Mapes of Today.com’s Cancer Kick-off: Getting Dumped After Diagnosis called Dr. Chamberlain to inquire about this imbalance, ‘Men may be very well equipped to be primary providers but not so well equipped to be primary caregivers. I think men are challenged in caring for someone who has disease and treatment-related symptoms — managing the stress, managing the logistics,’ declared Mr. Chamberlain, admitting that his results made men look like ‘bottom-dwelling, scum sucking creatures.’ Chamberlain says one thing they did discover was the longer a couple was together the more likely it was they’d stay together after a bad diagnosis.
In a recent People article, Amy Robuch and Andrew Shue: Cancer Made Our Marriage Stronger Amy confesses, ‘This was not something I would wish on anyone’s marriage, but I think it was especially hard on a newer marriage. All of a sudden I felt like I needed him in a very needy way, and that’s not my personality. When I had my crisis, I crumbled. It threw everything up in the air. It was rough for several months.’ After they sought help and changed the way they communicated, the couple’s bond became stronger. ‘We knew what we had when we found each other, and we knew that if we could just get back to what our connection was about and just be honest about the fears, then we could get through it.’
“Breast cancer is not good for relationships, but good relationships can be made stronger by sharing hardship.” Visit You and Your Partner on breastcancer.org for effective tips on communication during cancer.