Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis and dealing with the subsequent treatments and issues is challenging. The news can ignite many emotions, whether you’re newly diagnosed, facing a recurrence, or experiencing progression. Unfortunately, for some people, the cancer journey also includes heartache and partner abandonment from someone they thought they could count on no matter what.
It can be emotional or physical when a partner abandons a person with cancer. Emotional partner abandonment occurs when the non-cancerous person in a relationship withdraws their emotional support and affection. Physical partner abandonment happens when they leave the house for extended periods, stop paying bills, and cease to engage in other household-related activities.
Women Are At Greater Risk for Partner Abandonment
Sadly, partner abandonment after a cancer diagnosis isn’t unique, and it’s more likely to happen to women. Research from the University of Michigan found that 31% of marriages that involve physical illnesses end in divorce. In addition, the study found that more men than women develop serious health problems over time, but more men leave their sick wives. This means women are doubly vulnerable to marital dissolution connected to illnesses: they are more likely to become widowed and more likely to be abandoned if they get ill.
Another study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that significantly more husbands leave their wives compared to wives leaving husbands after a serious illness such as cancer or heart failure diagnosis. The overall rate of marital dissolution among cancer patients is about 12%. In addition, the divorce rate when a woman is the cancer patient is 20.8%, while the rate when a man has cancer is just 2.9%.
Why People Abandon Loved Ones After a Cancer Diagnosis
Sometimes people abandon their loved ones after a cancer diagnosis because they fear what will happen. They may be scared that their loved one will die or that cancer will cause them to suffer horribly. Others may simply be afraid of the unknown — what the future holds for them and their partner and how it might change their lives forever.
Some people also abandon their loved ones because they don't want to experience pain. Cancer can make people feel helpless and frustrated, especially if it prevents them from doing things they used to enjoy: going out with friends or family members, taking care of household chores, or even being intimate with someone they love.
How To Tell If Your Partner Will Abandon You After a Cancer Diagnosis
There’s no way to know if your partner will abandon you after you’ve been diagnosed with cancer — or at any part of the cancer journey. But, if you’re worried that your partner will leave you after a cancer diagnosis, you can do a few things to find out. It might seem like an obvious question, but ask them!
Tell them that you are feeling anxious and scared about what having cancer means for your relationship, and ask them how they feel about it. While it may be understandable if they’re reluctant to talk about it or make plans for the future with you as a couple, it might be an indication that something is wrong.
Another way to tell is if they start putting their own needs in front of yours — such as going out with friends more often than usual or spending money on themselves rather than saving up for important things like car repairs. You should also watch closely if your partner becomes withdrawn from the relationship: does he always seem sad? Does he withdraw from affectionate gestures? These signs may mean he's starting to pull away emotionally even though he hasn't said anything directly.
It Might Not Be Abandonment If Your Partner Needs Space
Before you give up on your partner, consider that they might be going through some of their feelings about what is happening. It can be difficult for anyone to see their loved one go through cancer. Your partner may feel overwhelmed and need some space to work through things in their way.
Your partner may also feel a lot of pressure to act differently than they usually would help make things better for you. To do so, they may need time and space away from you to figure out how best to support your needs during treatment.
Another reason a partner might pull away could be because changes ahead will impact the relationship dynamic between both parties (i.e., once treatment ends). This could leave them uncertain and afraid of what those changes might mean for their future with you now or later down the road (if at all).
Abandonment Happens, But It Doesn't Mean You're Unlovable
It’s normal to feel abandoned in the face of a cancer diagnosis. Unfortunately, the general public’s understanding of cancer remains woefully inadequate, leaving loved ones feeling powerless and afraid. Even those who have had personal experience with a loved one’s illness may be unprepared for how it can affect their relationship with their partner.
Cancer is an emotionally intense journey that can stress even the happiest relationships; when coupled with abandonment issues and other intimacy challenges, it can be hard to hang on as things get more complex.
Although being abandoned by your partner can leave you feeling alone, remember that you’re not alone! You are part of an enormous community of people who have faced similar challenges and survived them (or are still surviving them) together. For example, Surviving Breast Cancer’s global online community offers opportunities to connect with others for safe, judgment-free, peer-to-peer support to ensure you’re never alone.
We’re Always Here For You!
Surviving Breast Cancer is always available with multiple resources, including financial management guides, podcasts, and webinars to provide you with information and lessen your anxiety. We also offer healing workshops and mindful movement classes, and you can join any of our groups or be matched with a mentor.