Cancer Hard on Marriages
WebMD News Archive
May 12, 2001 (San Francisco) -- Cancer can be life threatening, but if the
patient is a married woman, cancer may also be marriage threatening. Michael J.
Glantz, MD says that cancer is associated with an "exorbitant increase"
in divorce and "women carry the burden of this effect."
Glantz says that it is not unusual for women to give up promising careers or
leave high-profile jobs to take care of a sick husband, but "you don't hear
about men doing that."
Glantz presented his findings about cancer and marriage at the American
Society of Clinical Oncologists meeting here on Saturday. Glantz studied brain
cancer patients treated at the University of Massachusetts, where he was an
associate professor. He is now an associate professor at the University of
Arizona, Barrow Institute in Phoenix.
Of 214 patients with brain tumors, women were almost eight times more likely
to undergo separation or divorce after diagnosis than were men diagnosed with
brain tumors, Glantz says. Among 193 patients with other types of cancer, women
were 12 times more likely to have marital disruptions, he says. He also studied
107 patients who were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and discovered that
women with MS were seven times more likely to be divorced, but Glantz says this
result may be skewed because MS is much more common among women than men.
Breast cancer expert Larry Norton, MD, tells WebMD that "about 5% of my
married breast cancer patients end up with severe marital disruptions."
Norton, director of breast cancer research at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering
Cancer Center in New York City, says, "I now basically counsel women right
from the start that their marriages are at risk." Norton is the new
president of the American Society of Clinical Oncologists.
Glantz tells WebMD that it is unclear if years married can reduce the
divorce risk but says "being younger than 50 at the time of diagnosis was
also associated with a higher rate of divorce." Younger patients, he says,
are likely to be married for fewer years.
Glantz specializes in brain tumors, and he says that aggressive brain tumors
were highly associated with marital disruption. "These diagnoses almost
always mean death, and it may be that men think that their wives will get
better support from family or from their children when they have a fatal
He says that marriage problems are especially common when women have tumors
in the frontal lobes of the brain. These tumors "work the same way as a
lobotomy," he says. The patient is left with a completely "flat effect.
No emotional response."
Cancer doesn't always mean the end of a marriage, though. Lawrence Prescott
of San Diego didn't leave his wife when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor,
but instead became the "primary caregiver for her and our two children, who
were 6 and 9." Prescott tells WebMD that he and his wife were married for
16 years when she was initially diagnosed and were married "20 years when
she died in 1981."