September 15, 2023

Has Illness Wrecked Your Relationship?


Grass is always greener on the married side of the cancer fence.  Or is it?  Here’s a quote from Katie Smith, who I interviewed while researching Everything Changes:

“I learned about my diagnosis in the recovery room after waking up from an operation and learning they had done a hysterectomy.  The first thing I thought was ‘What is my husband going to think of me now?,’ because we had been trying to get pregnant.

“I started seeing differences in how he acted with me.  We weren’t getting along.  We still wanted kids and he really wanted surrogacy.  It was hard for me to think about our kid being half him and half from another woman.  I wanted to adopt so it would feel equal. We talked a lot about it.  I signed up for an adoption class but he never showed up to class.  I was so mad sitting there by myself.  That was a big sign to me that he wasn’t that interested. Our marriage broke up two months later.”

I hear so many stories about the single cancer patient who finally falls in love (yep, I’m one of them too.)  But what about people for whom cancer crumbles a relationship?  Did you know that the divorce rate for terminal cancer patients is higher than the national average?

I know from experience that being single with cancer can suck, but I think that having cancer in an unloving or unstable relationship must be equally if not more challenging.  A lot of relationships that are already on the rocks sometimes just cannot sustain the emotional, financial, sexual, and fertility stress of cancer.

Some studies show that older couples often weather the marital stresses of cancer better, and that young couples are more likely to divorce in cancer situations than older couples.  Why?  When you’ve been with someone for decades you learn how they respond to stress.  Many older couples have already had kids.  They also have different expectations about what needs to happen when you jump in the sack.  Not always so for us young ones.

I’m curious to know, has illness made an impact on your relationships?  Has it taught you something about your partner you didn’t already know?  If your relationship ended during illness, was there any sense of relief that came along with the stress or sadness?

Learn more about cancer marriage and divorce from HollyAnna, Tracy, and Sheila in Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

11/11/09 - I wanted to give a quick update to this post.  A study just out shows that a woman is six times more likely to be separated or divorced soon after her cancer diagnosis than if the man in the relationship is the patient.  Wow.  The rate when the woman was the patient was 20.8 percent compared to 2.9 percent when the man was the patient. It also shows that the longer the marriage, the less chance of divorce after a diagnosis.

The study, “Gender Disparity in the Rate of Partner Abandonment in Patients with Serious Medical Illness,” was published in the Nov. 15 issue of the journal Cancer. The other corresponding author is Michael Glanz, M.D., of the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

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  1. anon me again Says:
    September 15th, 2009 at 12:59 PM

    From the previous posts, etc.,on your blog on related topics, it seems that a lot more people seem to want to have/remain in relationships and marraiges than those who don’t, when they are ill. Somehow I was the latter - I find being alone much easier - or maybe I just need to sort myself out before I can have a healthy relationship. . .

    4 months after my diagnosis, I met a man who really was very keen on me. I told him about my illness on the first date, sceretly hoping to scare him away. He phoned me the next day after he’d done the homework on the internet, asked me questions (and even thanked me for sharing personal information - because only a limited number of people know), and said it really didn’t scare him away. After several months, I started feeling attached to him and fearing that as soon as I have a very bad flare and lose my hair and am covered with rashes or my kidneys fail, he would dump me - so I broke up with him before he could dump me. This is really stupid and I do regret it now. I dumped someone based on a hypothetical situation, because I couldn’t deal with my own fear. It did give me a temporary relief because I didn’t have to deal with the fear of being dumped. . . . but I know I can’t do this forever!!!!

  2. brigita Says:
    September 15th, 2009 at 1:57 PM

    I was diagnosed within 5 months of having our first and now possibly only child, so it’s impossible for me to say what marital stress is from the kid or the cancer. Suffice it to say that things have changed between us-not so much that we aren’t willing to work through it-but it’s hard.

    He wants me to “move on” and I want him to talk with someone that specializes in caregivers with the hopes of his both having a safe place to voice any not-so-nice feelings he might have about me and the cancer, but I’m also hoping the therapist could give him some perspective on how long it takes the average cancer veteran to “get over” things.

    Unfortunately he hasn’t made the leap as yet, so while I’m actively trying to process the experience, I fear that he will be stuck until he can talk about all of it. I hate to admit that the experience has driven a bit of a wedge between us. I don’t think it’s permanent but it still makes me sad. UGH.

  3. anonymous Says:
    September 15th, 2009 at 3:44 PM

    I think having cancer has made my relationship stronger with my husband. We had been dating for about 4 years and had only been engaged a few months when I got my stage 4 cancer dx in 05. I was still living at home with my parents and he had just gotten a huge job offer in another state and he dropped everything and was with me every day for the entire 9 months of my treatment. 13 months after I finished my treatment (and my hair grew back) we had a wonderful wedding, bought a new home and are currently baby planning :) I realize I’m one of the lucky ones as many of the friends I made at the treatment center got dumped or cheated on when they got their diagnoses.

  4. anonymous Says:
    September 15th, 2009 at 4:47 PM

    I was dating my boyfriend for over 5 years when I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After having brain surgery I attempted to force him to leave me. I felt guilty that at 31 yrs old he had to deal with all of this. Did I really want him to dump me?- of course not. But like the above poster I was afraid for him and for myself. After a month of trying to convince him he was better off without me, he proposed to me We are getting married next month. We are still trying to deal with all of the issues that my diagnosis has brought up. Like my what-ifs about my future health. I am also trying to get him to talk to a therapist about his feelings. I have him to vent to and he has no outlet. I feel very lucky to have him remain in my life through all of this.

  5. kate b. Says:
    September 15th, 2009 at 5:52 PM

    I was 24 in 2003, diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had been with my boyfriend at that time 3 years. There were many ways in which he was not supportive but the one I most remember is an argument we had on the way to another scary doctor’s appointment about whether my mom was going to come out (she lived across the country) for my surgery. He did not want her to come because… honestly I don’t know why, he didn’t like my mom that much or didn’t want to have to play host or something along those lines. I was terrified, a wreck, and of course I wanted my mother to come out and be there for me. We were taking the city bus to the hospital, arguing and I remember so clearly looking out the window, crying, wondering why he was making this even more difficult. We stayed together for another year, I was back to work and a normal-ish life by then. But that argument was definitely the beginning of the end for me.

    Now, I’m 30 and with someone so much more supportive. He comes with me to any appointment I ask him to and never complains. I think when I was 24 I didn’t realize that I should expect more from my partner.

  6. Rich Devlin Says:
    September 15th, 2009 at 8:22 PM

    I think the cancer journey is a very personal one and for this reason does not lend itself well to generalizations. My own story includes two daughters (24) (29) and a wife of 38 years who died this past December at age 59 after an initial breast cancer diagnosis in 2001. Her long and arduous course of treatment included two mastectomies (one prophylactic), several courses of chemotherapy, radiation both localized and stereotactic to the brain toward the end - and all the horrible symptoms that come along with the package. I knew all along that I had married an incredible woman but the course of the illness allowed us to draw extremely close as a couple and as a family. I learned that her love for us knew no bounds because at the end of the day she fought so hard to stay alive for us. It was her gift to her family and friends. We were fortunate to be allowed time for closure and for this I am very thankful. I fear for my own daughters and for any women, or men, who are faced with a cancer diagnosis. The road is a rough one under the “best” of circumstances.

  7. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    September 15th, 2009 at 10:57 PM

    Thanks for all of your comments. I really appreciated Rich’s comment and recognized that not only was I a bit caviler in my generalization, but I was not conveying well what I intended to say. So I’ve made a correction to the last paragraph. It is not that cancer is any easier to deal with if you are younger, but that couples who are married for longer tend to have lower divorce rates due to cancer and are able to better weather the stresses that cancer places on marital relations. Rich, I’m sorry for the tremendous loss that you and your daughters are experiencing. Thanks for contributing to the conversation. Best, Kairol

  8. Becca (cynnycal) Says:
    September 16th, 2009 at 4:49 AM


    Before i was diagnosed at age 25, stage III colon cancer, I met a man who really made my heart do the little fluttery thing that i’d never really felt. and then of course, not too long after meeting him, I was diagnosed. Now I never thought it’d be near as epic a battle/condition as it has turned into. But I tried to keep the new man at bay, just stay friends, b/c I was scared at what I was gonna have to go through. But that quickly gave way to full blown committed relationship, one that flourished. it never could have worked. he was 7 years younger than me and in college. i was graduated and lived in a different city than him. but yet…we couldnt’ stay away from each other.
    The new man, he was everything i needed/wanted/wished for (in someone to be there for me in this crisis, and for someone to open me up to love like i’d never known before). I tried to be cautious, after all, i was about to have major surgery, not be able to work or support myself, i needed to stay at home, and had tried to keep our relationship low key to my family and friends b/c they were all too concerned about my vulnerability in this time. But it quickly became clear that i couldn’t stay where i was and lie to myself that this new man wasn’t who i wanted to be with more than anything in the world. and this was not only echoed by the new man, it was shouted. all over, all the time, to anyone who would hear him.
    I moved out, got an apartment with a friend (the new man was finishing up college, & in a different city).
    But we had a goal. Two years. Two years I’d be finished with projected treatments, he’d be finished with school. He’d move back to chicago, we’d have our ‘real’ life instead of this long distance see each other only on weekends life.
    It was what kept me going. the promise of two years from now. We had amazing moments and memories. i had to do radiation in the summer, he came into town, & went with me every single day to radiation just to watch jeapoardy in waiting room while i got zapped. i didn’t tell anyone about him b/c people were way too protective of me to begin with & apparently thought i needed sheltering. so he did everything he could to be with me, without anyone knowing. He’d come up and spend all day at my job while i was working, just so he could pass by & wave & smile during my day.
    we would go to radiation, & after stop at the park, bring a blanket & do nothing but lay there all day, talking & holding hands. he never failed to let me know that cancer didn’t scare him. that he didn’t care about that. I gave him many times to leave. I flat out told him a few times that he really should just go and not look back. But of course he wouldn’t.
    I fell deeply madly insanely in love. it felt like nothing i’d ever experienced. I’d always been closed off, guarded. But being that i’d just been diagnosed with cancer, i thought maybe this time in a relationship i’d try something different & just open myself to vulnerability, emotion, etc.
    i finished treatment, i finished healing from surgery. i was put on a “check you every three months”then the “lets push you to checking every six months”. i got featured in a calendar about colon cancer survivors. I began working again. I got a grant to go back to school. He was finishing up music for a final recital. he was graduating. I’d gotten him an internship at a recording studio here. His family finally met me, they loved me. My family met him & all they had to know was that he made me happy, they instantly loved him. things were going like we’d hoped & planned for. things were good.
    and then…of course…there just HAD to be an “and then”…he began changing.
    It was his last semester in school. He started acting differently, hanging out with a ton of people he never did. drinking way too much. basically living the standard college life that he always said he hated, and never did. all of a sudden our age difference was a problem.
    the fact that i wasn’t a musician like him was a problem
    …and oh yea, cancer? that was a problem.
    one weekend i was flown out to indiana for a colon cancer awareness event to talk about the calendar. while there, he called me at 1a.m. to tell me he ran into his ex girlfriend at a club. he was flustered & confused, & we needed “to talk”.
    essentially he broke up with me over the phone while i was out of town because he was a pussy.

    that was a sunday.
    the following monday i got back home to a call from my oncologist saying my tumor markers had gone up.
    tuesday i was going in to get a ct scan.
    wednesday they were telling me there was a spot on my cervix that was lighting up.
    a few weeks later i was put back on chemo.

    my world had literally fallen apart.

    it couldnt’ have happened at a more perfect time.
    i haven’t actually laid eyes on my ex since BEFORE the weekend he broke up with me and my cancer returned. i never really got closure. i’ve talked to him here and there since then and he’s said things such as “i thought we were going to get past the cancer. you’d get done with treatment and we’d move on. but it was always there. you’re always going to have it there in the background.” and even such winning lines as “you are absolutely perfect for me in every way…except you have cancer” (that one was while he was drunk and called me on my birthday…classy right?)
    and the effed up part is, as much as i hate him for the coward that he turned into & what he’s done to me. I know that i cant completely be mad at him. hell…i may have done something like what he did if roles were reversed. he’s younger than me. and was immature. i took a leap of faith getting involved with him and it turned around to bite me in the ass. or dump me over the phone, whatever you prefer.
    someone told me a few months after my ex ruined my world: “if you end up alone for the rest of your life its on your own choice. not because you can’t find someone” and that just may be true. b/c i just dont see myself being willing or able to put forth the effort to meet someone. form a relationship. put the trust out there. anything. I’m pretty much devastated from it all.
    I’m 29, single with inoperable cancer and doomed to a cold bed for however long i have left on this planet. yay.

  9. Pat Steer (Gaelen) Says:
    September 18th, 2009 at 5:12 AM

    I’ve read through all of these comments three times before replying, because I want to choose my words very carefully. Most of the comments fill me with sadness, because I see patients and survivors who want partners to get counseling but who don’t sound like they’re working on their own self-image issues.

    Katie Smith ‘started seeing differences in the way [my husband] was acting with me.’ Anon Me Again commented “I dumped someone based on a hypothetical situation, because I couldn’t deal with my own fear.” Becca doesn’t see herself as being able to put the effort into trusting someone again. The comment from the second ‘anonymous’ reply almost jumped off the page: “I am also trying to get him to talk to a therapist about his feelings. I have him to vent to and he has no outlet.”

    One similarity strikes me — we, as patients, change. We can’t control that. We would change even without cancer, grow, be different over time. Cancer just puts the process on speed-dial for us. And it sounds like we could do more to take healthy steps to address the self-doubt, self-image, general live upheaval changes that are thrust upon us.

    But meanwhile, our partners are changing and changed, too. They may change just as fast, or faster, or not as fast. And too often it sounds like we aren’t allowing them to change/evolve at their pace, and that we’re less willing to do the work that a relationship requires.

    I’m not exempt from that. As a stage IV patient with limited life expectancy, several physical issues that sometimes feel like mountains, and-oh yeah-a permanent colostomy, there are days I feel less than beautiful, less than confident, less than happy in my own skin. But having a relationship with someone isn’t any different now than it’s ever been…if *I* don’t like me, a lover isn’t going to find much to like, either.

    People who’ve been together for long time DO break up during the cancer process. But stories like Rich’s seem a lot more common in the patients around me. Maybe part of it is that older patients have learned that a relationship isn’t always ‘equal,’ but equivalent — and have learned how to make it work. They’ve developed patience with each others’ shortcomings, and priortized what they really want. I hate to say it’s a ‘maturity’ thing, but it sounds like that could be a component.

    I’ve been single throughout my cancer, although I was casually dating before cancer. In cancer, you can become completely self-absorbed; some would say that is the only way to survive. But it’s hard to start or sustain a relationship if you’re always self-absorbed, or if you expect your partner to change at the same speed that life is changing you.

  10. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    September 18th, 2009 at 6:56 PM

    No age limit on this blog Holly. Thanks for your comment. It shows that regardless of statistics, people of all ages get dumped on our asses because of cancer. Sorry for your hard, hard fall. You are not alone. Your comment reminded me of a book called When Things Fall Apart; Hard Felt Advice for Difficult Times. It is a book written by a wise Buddhist nun. It starts with her husband walking out the door on her. I am not Buddhist, yet this is one of the wisest books I’ve read. Heartache comes in so many forms and this woman knows how to sit with it. All my best to you, Kairol

  11. tis Says:
    September 30th, 2009 at 12:30 PM

    I, too, am older than most of the posters here. I was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago. I have no idea whether I have two years left or 20. But whichever it is, it certainly looks like I am going to spend them alone. I hear what people are saying, that it is better to be alone than in an unsupportive relationship. But there is nothing more unsupported than going through this alone. I don’t see a lot of guys out there advertising for women with scarred chests. In my experience, breast cancer scares men away. But I can’t really blame them. If I had a choice between a relationship with someone healthy, and a relationship with someone who has cancer, which would I choose?

    I have had many people — all of them without cancer — say the same cruel thing that Becca’s friend did: that it’s my choice that I’m not finding someone. Well, it’s not my choice. And people who haven’t gone through this, who haven’t seen the look of dismay on a guy’s face, or heard the sudden shift in a tone of voice, just don’t know what they’re talking about.

    In many ways, I think I am much worse off emotionally than I was when I was diagnosed a year ago. I was more frightened and anxious then, but I still had hopes that this would be a life-affirming, transformative experience. Now I know better.

  12. Em Says:
    November 11th, 2013 at 10:37 PM

    My mother was diagnosed with cancer over two years ago. Over time it bad progressed and her diagnosis is now terminal. Myself and my Dad are her only caretakers and I live 2.5 hours away and have made trips up to help with her care on weekends, weeks and sometimes months at a time.

    Just a year ago I was in a 9 year relationship with a man I thought I would have shared with, but just 12 months ago he said the cancer was coming between us, that I was not giving him enough intimacy, not cooking “meals from scratch” as he called it and not giving him 100 percent of my love and time. This is just 2 years after my mothers diagnosis. He had proposed to me in 2011, three months before my Mom was diagnosed with leoimyomasarcoma. We had bought a house together and were working to build our lives together while I struggled with my mothers illness and the stress of being one of her only caregivers.

    I never received much support from him and came to see how selfish he was during the last two years of our relationship. He and his parents would manage to say the worst things to myself and my mother. Looking back I wonder if maybe they never really understood, being that they had never had an experience like mine, not have they experienced losing someone dear to them. Often I would hear from his father things like, “life goes on.” Or “everybody dies”. At our last Thanksgiving at our new guide, my I’ll larger and my Dad dropped in for a family dinner with my then fiancé and his parents. His father proceeded to tell my mother “my son and your daughter need to start planning a date for the wedding, because tonight die soon.” This was soon to be one of the many heartless, cold and uncaring comments to come out of these monsters faces.

    When my fiancé decided I was not giving him the attention he wanted, he have me an ultimatum. Either start “cooking his meals”.from scratch, be home more or that was it. I decided that I no longer needed a man im my life that did nothing but act on his own selfishness and he parted ways with me. This was just 12 days after I returned from caring for my mother for 2 weeks.

    His final words to me we’re again, “life goes on.”

    I remember crying a lot, coping with the death of a 9 year relationship while grieving over my mothers suffering. I remember calling him, crying asking why he wasted 9 years of my life. I said that I could have had a real relationship with another person and may have had the.opportunity to be married and have children while my Mom wasn’t sick and that she might have still been here to witness and share those events with me. His answer was, “well, now you live with that.”

    Even though that was a year ago, I still think about it and how I wasted my time with this terrible human being. I grieve over the loss of time and the fact that I might not have my Mom around for when I finally do get married and have kids. Since then, I’ve met an amazing man that I love with all my heart and soul. This man is supportive, kind and compassionate..something I’ve never experienced from my ex fiance in the 9 years I wasted with him. My mother is still with us, but in the end stages of her disease. Although I am heartbroken that my new amazing man did not get to meet my.mother when she was vibrant and healthy, and see her for her true self…I am still so thankful that she is here with us so that he was able to meet her and get to know her during the time she has left..
    The broken relationship had left my parents devastated, especially my Mom. Even though it was a punch in the stomach and a devastating blow to us all, we are all stronger because of it. I am glad that the relationship selfdestructed when it did, because I think about how it horrible it would have been if I had married that man . Everything.g does happen for a reason.

    My heart goes out to all of you suffering not only from a devastating illness, or those acting as caretakers to a loved one all while the rest of the world and those whom you thought would stick by your side through thick or thin seem to turn their back on you.

    Stay strong and keep your head high. You deserve better..sometimes one door needs to close for another one to open.

  13. Em Says:
    November 11th, 2013 at 10:44 PM

    Excuse the awful typos…responding from a very unpredictable Android phone!

  14. communication | One in Six Thousand Says:
    June 23rd, 2014 at 1:31 AM

    [...] cancer, and it gets even more complicated. Did you know that young couples who deal with cancer have a much higher tendency to head toward cancer-induced [...]

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