Cancer Hard on Marriages

From the WebMD Archives

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 disease."

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."

He says the hardest part for him was when his wife developed difficulty speaking, a condition called aphasia. As a couple they went from being a very bright, in-sync pair, to a couple that communicated through a sort of guessing game "when I would ask questions to find out what she needed." Also gone was her love of word games and in its place was a fascination with "stupid television shows that we would watch for hours."

Although the experience was wearing, Prescott says, "if you love somebody, this is what you do."


Frank G. Haluska, MD, PhD, of Massachusetts General Hospital, tells WebMD that he thinks it is the severity of disease that disrupts marriage. Haluska says he specializes in treating melanoma, a deadly skin cancer. Treatment often requires very long and debilitating chemotherapy. "In this disease it is often the treatment that can cause problems in the marriage," he says.

He, too, says that he assesses patients for signs of marital disruption but that he hasn't observed "men leaving women. In fact, I had the reverse with one man who was the patient and his wife left him."