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Cancer and Divorce

Posted 5/15/2014

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  That has to be one of the most depressing/negative titles ever: cancer and divorce; those surely are two life events most of us would choose to avoid. And some of us have had to experience both.

  I am writing today about a recent study from the University of Michigan that  found that 31% of marriages studied came apart. Those were marriages in which one partner had a serious illness (heart disease, lung disease, stroke, or cancer), and when the woman was the ill partner, the incidence of divorce was higher. This is sobering stuff. It also does not correlate with what I have observed in my decades of clinical work with women who have cancer.

  I have not read the study itself, so I don't know if they differentiate among the illnesses. If so, I would suspect that the divorce rate is higher when the problem is heart, lung, or stroke rather than cancer. Why? My thinking is that cancer is either a short term (although it surely does not feel like that when you are going through it) problem or that it recurs and then becomes a chronic problem leading to death. In either case, it is rarely a situation of years and years of disability. Some other kinds of serious illness can result in very long term serious medical, disabling issue. This seems related to the reality that it is often possible to buy longterm care insurance X number of years after cancer, but it usually not possible to buy it if one has other kinds of chronic illness. Again, the thinking must be that, if it kills you, cancer does so rather quickly--and wouldn't cost the insurance company years of funding for a nursing home or 24/7 care at home.

  I don't think that this makes me feel any better, but it does give a possible explanation for my own perspective which is quite different from the study results. Of course I have known women whose marriages came apart after cancer, and I can think of only one who was totally surprised by her husband's decision. The others had been living with unhappiness, and one or the other partner used cancer as the life-is-short reminder and opted out. And, just as often, it was the woman post cancer who made this decision.

  Here is a summary from Eureka Reports aboud this study:

'Til sickness do us part: How illness affects the risk of divorce

ANN ARBOR—In the classic marriage vow, couples promise to stay together in sickness and in health.
But a new study finds that the risk of divorce among older married couples rises when the wife—but not
the husband—becomes seriously ill.
"Married women diagnosed with a serious health condition may find themselves struggling with the
impact of their disease while also experiencing the stress of divorce," said Amelia Karraker, a researcher
at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, who presents her findings May 1 at the annual
meeting of the Population Association of America.
Karraker and co-author Kenzie Latham of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis analyzed 20
years of data on 2,717 marriages from the Health and Retirement Study, conducted by the Institute for
Social Research since 1992. At the time of the first interview, at least one of the partners was over the
age of 50.
The researchers examined how the onset of four serious physical illnesses—cancer, heart problems, lung
disease and stroke—affected marriages.
They found that, overall, 31 percent of marriages ended in divorce over the period studied. The
incidence of new chronic illness onset increased over time as well, with more husbands than wives
developing serious health problems.


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