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Cancer Can Strain Marriages to Breaking Point

But men much more likely to leave than women if spouse is sick, study finds

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 11 (HealthDay News) -- Cancer can put an enormous strain on a marriage, and couples are much more likely to fall apart if the woman is the patient.

In fact, the odds of separation or divorce are six times higher compared to when the man is the one with the illness, a new study shows.

The researchers did find that couples that have been married longer are more likely to survive the difficulties of dealing with cancer.

The findings, published in the Nov. 15 issue of the journal Cancer, confirm existing research that has reported that nearly 12 percent of marriages end in divorce or separation after a spouse develops cancer.

The new study sheds some more light on gender differences: nearly 21 percent of couples split up when the woman was the patient, compared to just about 3 percent when the man was the patient.

"Female gender was the strongest predictor of separation or divorce in each of the patient groups we studied," study co-author Dr. Marc Chamberlain, director of the neuro-oncology program at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, said in a news release.

The researchers compiled their statistics after studying 515 patients with certain types of cancer, including brain cancer, and multiple sclerosis, from 2001 to 2006.

"We believe that our findings apply generally to patients with life-altering medical illness," the authors wrote. "We recommend that medical providers be especially sensitive to early suggestions of marital discord in couples affected by the occurrence of a serious medical illness, especially when the woman is the affected spouse and it occurs early in the marriage. Early identification and psychosocial intervention might reduce the frequency of divorce and separation, and in turn improve quality of life and quality of care."

More information

Learn more about cancer from the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

-- Randy Dotinga

SOURCE: Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, news release, Nov. 10, 2009

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