BARCELONA, Spain – People who develop cervical or testicular cancer may face another harsh reality: they are more likely to get divorced, a new study says.
In research presented Thursday at a meeting of the European Cancer Organization, Norwegian experts found that women with cervical cancer had a 40 percent higher chance of getting divorced than other women. Men with testicular cancer were 20 percent more likely to get divorced than similar men without cancer. Both types of cancer are curable and mainly affect young people.
"Sex could have something to do with this," said Lesley Fallowfield, a professor of psycho-oncology at Sussex University who was not connected to the study. "If men and women with cervical or testicular cancer aren't having sex with their partners, that may be a problem."
For nearly two decades, the study looked at 2.8 million people in Norway, comparing the divorce rates of 215,000 cancer survivors to those in couples with no cancer. They did not ask couples about the reasons for the divorces, but only looked at marriage and divorce registration data.
"It seems to be worse for your marriage to get cancer early," said Astri Syse, an epidemiologist at the Norwegian Cancer Registry who led the study. But Syse said that it was only cervical and testicular cancer that produced a spike in divorces. Other types of cancer did not result in more divorces.
Age also helped.
At age 20, women were 69 percent more likely to get divorced if they had cervical cancer. But by age 60, that risk dropped to 19 percent. The same trend was seen in men with testicular cancer. At 20, men with testicular cancer had an increased divorce risk of 34 percent. That fell to 16 percent for men aged 60.
Experts thought that the breakups could be due both to the cancers, and to the youth of the couples involved. Older couples might be more committed to each other and less likely to get divorced even when faced with a life-threatening disease.
Fallowfield said that couples affected by cancer early on in their marriage might be more likely to divorce if they had not yet had children, or if the illness caused financial hardship.
She said that because sex is a particularly important way for young couples to cement their relationship, a cancer diagnosis that affects a couple's sex life might be very damaging.
"No patient develops cancer in a social vacuum," she said. "The diagnosis will always have an impact on a loved one, and in some cases, they may decide to leave."
Experts said that doctors treating couples in which one of them had cancer should pay more attention to how the diagnosis was affecting their relationship.
Another study presented Wednesday at the Barcelona meeting found that children of cancer patients were so affected by the news of their parent's diagnosis that they had post-traumatic stress symptoms years later.
"We clearly need to be looking closer at how cancer affects a patient's loved ones," Fallowfield said. "There is more to treating cancer than just medical care."
Syse said that her study was good news for some cancer patients. "There's a myth that if you get breast cancer, your husband will leave you," she said. In fact, she and her colleagues found that survivors of breast cancer were less likely to get divorced than similar women without the disease.
Divorce was least likely to occur when the cancer had spread, or in most fatal types of cancer.