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In sickness and in health? For men, maybe not

SCCA study finds husbands more likely than wives to leave sick spouse

Nov. 16, 2009
Dr. Marc Chamberlain

“Female gender was the strongest predictor of separation or divorce in each of the patient groups we studied,” said the Clinical Research Division’s Dr. Marc Chamberlain, who co-led the study.

Photo by Philip Meadows

A married man is six times more likely to separate from or divorce his wife soon after a diagnosis of cancer or multiple sclerosis than a married woman in the same situation, according to a study that examined the role gender played in so-called “partner abandonment.”

The study confirmed earlier research that put the overall divorce or separation rate among cancer patients at 11.6 percent, similar to the population as a whole. However, researchers were surprised by the difference in separation and divorce rates experienced by gender: 20.8 percent for female patients compared to 2.9 percent for male patients.

“Female gender was the strongest predictor of separation or divorce in each of the patient groups we studied,” said the Clinical Research Division’s Dr. Marc Chamberlain, who co-led the study with Dr. Michael Glanz of the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah School of Medicine. The study results were published in the Nov. 15 issue of the journal Cancer.

Why men leave a sick spouse can be partly explained by their lack of ability, compared to women, to make more rapid commitments to being caregivers to a sick partner and women’s better ability to assume the burdens of maintaining a home and family, said the study authors.

Researchers at three medical centers—the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Huntsman and Stanford University School of Medicine—enrolled a total of 515 patients in the study and followed them for up to five years.

Chamberlain, director of the SCCA’s neuro-oncology program, said the researchers enrolled groups of patients with cancers and with multiple sclerosis to separate the impact of oncologic versus neurological disease.

The study also found correlations between age and length of marriage and the likelihood of divorce or separation. The older the woman was, the more likely her partnership would end. However, longer marriages remained more stable. 

[Adapted from a Seattle Cancer Care Alliance news release.]

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