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For Women, Cancer Spells Divorce

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It looks like some men slept through the "in sickness and in health" part of the marriage vow. When a woman gets diagnosed with cancer, she's far more likely to end up divorced than if a man gets the same diagnosis.

nurse holding womans hand in wheelchair

Ronda Kaysen: According to a recent study, 21 percent of female cancer patients ended up divorced or separated after a cancer diagnosis. Compare that with the three percent of men who ended up in the same boat after their diagnosis, and you've got yourself one very lopsided picture.

When you take a closer look at the data, the story is even bleaker. In marriages that were on the rocks before cancer entered the equation, wives were more likely to put the brakes on a divorce when they found out their husbands were sick, whereas husbands did just the opposite when their wives got a bad bit of health news and jumped ship. The marriages that are most at risk are young ones. Couples who've been together for a long time tend to stick it out through illness.

"The striking part is with life-threatening illness, how often women are abandoned compared to men. That does not speak very well of my gender," Dr. Marc Chamberlain, who led the study, told The New York Times.

Chamberlain seems to think that women stick around because of their role in the family. After all, women tend to be the caretakers. "There clearly is an emotional attachment women have to spouse, family, and home that in times of stress causes women to hunker down and deal with it, while men may want to flee," he said.

This is not good news for women. People battling cancer need all the support they can get, and when husbands leave, women are less likely to try alternative treatments, stay on their medications, or get good hospice care, according to Chamberlain.

I can't imagine what it would be like to get a cancer diagnosis and then see your marriage -- and family support -- crumble around you. It's horrible to think that men would abandon their wives at the time they need family support the most.

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