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  • Writer's pictureSurviving Breast Cancer

Why Does a Breast Cancer Diagnosis Lead to so Many Divorces and Broken Relationships?

At a 501(c)(3) non-profit, we seek to offer community, support, education and health and wellness assistance for breast cancer survivors and their caregivers.

A topic that frequently arises in our community is the issue of partners, boyfriends, girlfriends, fiancés, husbands, family and friends "divorcing" (literally and figuratively) themselves from the breast cancer diagnosed patient. This divorce/broken relationship rate may run as high as 50% or more according to breast cancer thriver, Abigail Johnston.

The reasons are many, but selfishness and being overwhelmed, i.e., lack of understanding of the role of a caregiver, appear to be the leading factors.

One of our Breast Cancer community guest bloggers eloquently posted the following:

“Our relationship started to spiral downward, and very quickly. In fact, deep, down inside I knew as soon as a month after my diagnosis that “forever” wasn’t going to happen. But I held on. Even after he laughed at me and called me pathetic when I had trouble getting into the car a week after my 10-hour mastectomy surgery, drains distending from my sides, I held on. Even after our fight because I had to shave my head when my hair wouldn’t stop falling out, I held on. Even after sitting through a 5-hour chemo, crying, because a fight had gotten so bad that he shoved me into the car door, 10 minutes prior to walking through the cancer hospital door, I held on. Even after he told me he would rather not spend New Years with me because I wouldn’t be any fun due to a chemo infusion I had a few days before, I held on.

In retrospect, in the beginning, I do think he cared. However, ultimately, it was too overwhelming for him. Cancer is messy. It’s dark and scary and forces you to face your own mortality. Want to know a secret? It’s like that for you AND the people around you. It is, indeed, something that not everyone can handle and you know what? That’s okay. However, over the past two years, I’ve learned that I would rather surround myself with people who CAN handle it. I would rather be with a man who understands that I’m worth more than a phone call, two days before a surgery, telling me that he no longer wanted to be in a serious relationship because the past 6 months had been too hard on him and he was too young to be going through such a trying ordeal.”

Feelings of fear and helplessness

When a couple faces an illness like cancer that threatens their entire way of life, there are bound to be feelings of anger, fear, helplessness, bitterness, and exhaustion. While they wade through these feelings, they are also faced with new roles they have to fill (or can’t fill), financial uncertainty, and a complicated future including many trips to the oncologist, surgery, possible overwhelming financial obligations, etc. Partners may struggle with their new roles and feel inadequate—or overwhelmed.

If there were underlying problems in a relationship before an illness, the added strain may prove to be too much. As partners face the reality of their mortality, what they really want in life and what they’re willing to give up come into sharp focus.

According to recent studies (all credited below CB) it seems like women were less well-supported by their partners than men were while undergoing treatment for serious illnesses. The study found that couples were far more likely to separate if the female partner was the one being treated.

The effect of divorce on health risks is also well researched, but less understood is how health, or the lack of it, may affect the risk of divorce. Another study (CB) of older couples finds that marriage is more likely to end in divorce when the wife is ill than when the husband is ill. That study finds the risk of marriage ending in divorce when a spouse falls ill is higher when that spouse is the wife.

Illness can stress marriage in a number of ways. One way that spouse illness can stress a marriage is when the healthy spouse is the primary caregiver and may also have to take on sole responsibility for supporting the household.

Another stressor can be differences about quality of care. A third study (CB) found that wives are generally less satisfied with the care they receive from their husbands, probably because - and this applies to older men in particular - men have not been raised to be caregivers in the same way as women and may feel uncomfortable when thrust into the role.

Serious illness is a life or death experience that can make people stop and think about what is important in their lives. A fourth study (CB) found a significant gender difference in divorce following illness of a spouse. They were interested in people who were married at the start of the study period, and because they wanted to examine the effect of falling ill during that period, they excluded marriages where a spouse was already sick at the beginning of the study.

Age was tied to an increased chance of getting a serious illness, with husbands experiencing higher rates than wives. While the onset of illness in the husband was not linked with raised chance of divorce, illness in the wife was linked to a 6% higher risk of being divorced before the end of the study period. This was a significant gender difference.

A cancer diagnosis brings physical and emotional challenges, requiring both excellent medical care and a strong personal support system. When a couple chooses to divorce or separate during this time, managing the personal loss can present another hurdle. As difficult as this can be, there are strategies that can help you cope.

Does the blame rest with a Cancer Diagnosis?

It can be tempting to blame a separation or divorce on cancer, but most experts agree that it’s far more likely that the stressors related to the disease simply highlight weak areas that already exist within a relationship. The intensity of emotional and physical stress during this time magnifies patterns of behavior within relationships, as couples confront changing roles and responsibilities. The caregiver may need to step up to take over tasks that the patient previously handled, which can be a difficult transition; both partners will need to learn to manage and express feelings of fear, resentment, anger, anxiety and grief that arise; and, financial stressors may develop, especially if the patient is unable to work or if outside help has to be brought in to handle household or childcare.

In the end, solid marriages may even be further strengthened by the true partnering of spouses in together facing the threat that the cancer poses to their relationship.

While some troubled marriages improve, with cancer refocusing the partners on what is truly important in life. In other teetering marriages, a cancer diagnosis represents the final blow, leading to separation, as this additional set of fears and issues simply overwhelms one or both partners.

In some cases, couples may make it through the treatment phase together, but find that the survivorship phase presents an entirely new type of stress that highlights underlying problems in the relationship.

For some survivors, a cancer diagnosis inspires the desire to make healthier choices in their lives, and that may include ending an unhealthy relationship. A fifth study (CB) indicates that issues that arise in a relationship during cancer can make patients aware of problems and inspire them to make changes. They may recognize, they now have a different direction in life, but the other person isn’t really interested in this new direction. Like any other crisis, if one person feels like he or she has developed or changed, and the other person hasn’t grown, they can outgrow each other.

Navigating your way

Whatever the underlying causes of a divorce or separation, employing strategies (CB) to cope with the new reality and ensure your own well-being is essential. Work to gain perspective and to recognize that this is what was happening in this situation, this is how you feel, and this is how you can feel.

Focusing on the future during the treatment phase will also benefit you physically.

While it’s true that the timeframe for recovery— physical, emotional and spiritual—varies depending on the type and stage of cancer and the treatment received, letting negative emotions about the end of the relationship take precedence isn’t going to help your healing process. And if you’re not able to move forward on your own, then it’s time to reach out for professional help.

Look for help

If you’re facing a separation or divorce, your personal network can be invaluable—family members, friends, your faith community or even work colleagues can provide social support and practical help.

A cancer support group like and others or individual therapy can also help you cope—not just as a person with cancer but also as a person without a partner. Look for services or groups that can tailor support to your situation and provide insight.

The end of any marriage can be frightening, depressing and challenging for the former partners. The addition of a cancer diagnosis, which comes with its own fears, threats, issues and concerns, dramatically compounds the enormous challenges that result from separation or divorce.

For the cancer patient whose spouse has left, the attention, involvement and support of loving family and friends can play an important and significant role in their cancer care and quality of life—providing for the patient’s physical, emotional, medical and practical needs.

Steps to take to minimize the threat of divorce/breakdown of relationship after a breast cancer diagnosis.

Communication, as always is the key. Talk to your partner. Express yourself.

Find some time for each other. Schedule time if you have to.

Start somewhere. Find a comfortable place.

Talk as often as possible.

Be reassuring.

Consider outside therapeutic help.

Write it down. Use texts, emails, etc to help extend the conversation.

It is understood that Breast Cancer is typically a heinous diagnosis, resulting in some form of the following: surgery, chemo/hormonal treatments, and radiation, and the myriad side effects associated with all of the above. Generally it is not good for relationships, but good relationships can be made stronger by sharing hardship.

As our previous guest blogger stated: "Cancer is messy. It’s dark and scary and forces you to face your own mortality. Want to know a secret? It’s like that for you AND the people around you. It is, indeed, something that not everyone can handle and you know what? That’s okay."

We’d love to hear your stories associated with loss of friends, companions, family members and loved ones following your breast cancer diagnosis.

The following links/ articles were reviewed to assist this blog. Special call out to all of the various doctors, therapists and journalists involved in elevating this conversation.

First Comes Breast Cancer, Then Comes Divorce - Beth Gainer ...

Cancer Hard on Marriages - WebMD

Breast Cancer And Divorce: The Struggle To Embrace Hope After ...

Divorced due to Breast Cancer? ~ Pink Lotus Power Up

Cancer and Divorce - Cancer Fighters Thrive

Divorce is a more likely end to marriage when wife is ...

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