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Cancer Health Center

Gender Divorce Gap After Illness Strikes

Study Shows Women With Cancer or MS More Likely Than Men to Become Separted or Divorced
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 12, 2009 -- When faced with the serious illness of a spouse, men are far more likely to walk away than women, a study shows.

Women in the study with cancer or multiple sclerosis were more than six times as likely to become separated or divorced within an average of six months of being diagnosed as were men with similar health issues.

The overall divorce and separation rate among the study participants was similar to the population as a whole.

But when the wife was the patient, the divorce and separation rate was close to 21%, compared to 3% when the husband was seriously ill.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center neuro-oncologist Marc Chamberlain, MD, says he and colleagues got the idea for the study after noticing that divorces were far more common among their female brain cancer patients than their male patients.

“When we explored this, we found the same thing in patients with other cancers and multiple sclerosis,” he tells WebMD. “In this study at least, the men did not show the same level of commitment and emotional attachment to their sick spouse, family, and home as women did.”

9 of 10 Breakups in Female Patients

The study included 515 patients with malignant brain tumors, other cancers, or multiple sclerosis who were married at the time of their diagnosis. About half the patients were women.

Within an average of six months of diagnosis (range one to 14 months) 60 of the patients became divorced or separated.

Among the 214 patients with brain tumors, 78% of the divorces or separations occurred among women.

Of the 108 patients with multiple sclerosis and 193 patients with other cancers, 96% and 93% of breakups, respectively, occurred in women.

"The woman was the affected spouse in nearly 90% of separations that occurred among our patient cohort,” the researchers write in the Nov. 15 issue of the journal Cancer. “In fact, female sex was found to be the strongest predictor of divorce or separation in each of the three patient populations.”

It was not clear if the marriages that ended were in trouble before the diagnosis of illness or who initiated the breakups.

Marriage length was a strong predictor or whether couples would stay married or separate after a diagnosis of cancer or MS. The longer a couple had been married, the more likely that they would stay married.

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