Divorce and Cancer

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

MAY 24, 2017

It may or may not surprise you that the divorce rate for couples going through or shortly after cancer is about the same as the national average - unless the woman is the cancer patient. The overall divorce rate for cancer patients is about 11.6 percent, similar to the risk for the population as a whole. However, if the cancer patient is a woman, a 2009 study in the journal Cancer, she is six times more likely to suffer divorce during cancer than a male patient

There are lots of ways to jump to conclusions about this, but I suspect it is way more layered and complicated than just guessing that men are less good caretakers or less willing to stick around a sick spouse.

I have heard a few horrific stories through the years about fleeing husbands. One husband drove his wife home from her bilateral mastectomies. He carried her suitcase into the house (not even to the bedroom!), and then said: "I can't do this." And he walked out. For good. For every story like that, I have heard hundreds about supportive and loving spouses who were scared and sad but ever present.

I have known quite a few women who decided, with the keen perspective of cancer, that life is too short to be in a bad relationship and have initialed a divorce.

In 1993, when I had the first breast cancer, I was a couple of years post divorce. Shortly after surgery, I received a legal letter stating that my ex-husband was trying to reduce child support payments, and I was given a court date. The court date was maybe a week after surgery, and I still had drains. I also had an appointment with my surgeon that morning; she was duly horrified and offered to lend me a sweater with blood stains to wear before the judge. I declined. However, after just telling my lawyer that I needed to speak with my ex-husband once the proceedings were done, I had the most satisfying moment of the year. The context is that I had really loved my mother-in-law, and she had died a few years earlier from breast cancer. I walked up to my ex-husband and said: "Your mother would be ashamed of you."

I am only a little ashamed of myself for that outright mean comment. But, boy, it felt good. And she would have been!

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
View All Articles