Gender Divorce Gap After Illness Strikes

Study Shows Women With Cancer or MS More Likely Than Men to Become Separted or Divorced

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on November 12, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

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.

Medical Outcomes Worse in Divorced

Patients with brain tumors who separated or divorced were more likely to use antidepressants and die in the hospital and less likely to participate in clinical trials, complete radiation treatments, and die at home than patients whose marriages survived.

Three-fourths of multiple sclerosis patients are women and 70% of patients are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50.

Because MS strikes women more than men and young adults more than older ones, psychologist Nicholas LaRocca, PhD, of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), says women with the disease tend to be particularly vulnerable when their marriages end.

“MS is often diagnosed in the mid-30s, and this is when many women have take time off from work to raise a family,” he tells WebMD. “Plans to go back to work are often interrupted by MS.”

With the aid of a federal grant, NMSS has initiated a group support program to help MS patients and their spouses work through issues directly and indirectly related to the disease.

“When you are dealing with a serious illness, relationship issues may be ignored,” he says. “Not all marriages can or should be saved, but many that end in divorce probably could be saved with the right kind of support.”

Show Sources


Glantz, M.J. Cancer, Nov. 15, 2009.

Marc C. Chamberlain, MD, department of neurology, division of neuro-oncology, University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle.

Nicholas LaRocca, PhD, vice president of healthcare delivery and policy research, National Multiple Sclerosis Society.


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