In the largest and most rigorous study to date investigating how cancer influences divorce, Norwegian researchers have found that marriages are no more likely than normal to break down unless a spouse develops cervical or testicular cancer.
In fact, the study, presented today (Thursday 27 September) at the European Cancer Conference (ECCO 14) in Barcelona, found most types of cancer resulted in a slight decrease in the divorce rate in the first few years following the diagnosis.
The research, which compared the divorce rates of 215,000 cancer survivors with those among couples with no cancer over a period of about 17 years, revealed that women who developed cervical cancer were 40 percent more likely than normal to get divorced and testicular cancer survivors were 20 percent more likely to get divorced than similar men without cancer.
The findings also confirmed earlier studies debunking the myth that husbands may be more likely to abandon their wives after breast cancer. Breast cancer survivors saw an eight percent decrease in their divorce risk compared to similar women without the disease.
Mrs Astri Syse, a researcher at the Norwegian Cancer Registry in Oslo, Norway, who led the study, said several factors might explain why divorce risk increased only with cervical and testicular cancer.
The two cancers affect intimacy, resulting in decreases in sexual desire, enjoyment and fertility. However, the study’s results were adjusted to take into account any influence of fertility and both cancers tend to be detected early in Norway, resulting in minimal impact from sexually debilitating treatments, Syse noted.
Perhaps the most relevant factor, Syse proposed, is that cervical and testicular cancers mostly affect younger people.
“We suggest that younger age is a stronger predictor than alterations in sexual function,” Syse said. “It is also possible that sexual problems or a weakening of the emotional rewards from the union are particularly devastating early in a relationship and that an increased care load is most difficult to accept at an age when illness is most unexpected.
“Women with cervical cancer had an increased risk of divorce of 69% at age 20 years, but this risk was reduced to 19% at 60 years, implying that the effect of cervical cancer on divorce risk decreases with age,” Syse said. “The same tendency was seen among men with testicular cancer. The increased risk of divorce was estimated to 34% at 20 years, while it was estimated to fall 16% below the risk of the general population at 60 years.”
As for why most cancers resulted in a decrease in divorce risk, Syse said a cancer diagnosis might strengthen the bonds between partners.
“In addition, a serious disease may ‘save’ an unsatisfactory relationship because a break-up would be considered inappropriate in such a situation, or because an expected fatal outcome will make it ‘unnecessary’,” said Syse.
The study found that divorce was least likely to occur when the cancer had spread or for types of cancer that have a poor prognosis, and more likely in cancers with a good chance of recovery.