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Cancer and divorce: more common than you might think

I recently read a blog on the Huffington Post by a woman who had to deal with a devastating diagnosis and the prospect of a divorce at the same time.

She described how her husband began to pull away from her from the day she was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer.

“[A]s I geared up for the battle of my life, my husband started demonstrating a lack of willingness to fight by my side. I was heartbroken … Every time he’d pull away it felt like he’d put a bullet in my heart, just when I needed him most.”

This culminated in the husband leaving her during her second round of chemotherapy treatment. She was well and truly “left all alone on the cancer battlefield”.

As appalling as this story is, what makes it worse is the fact that it is not unique.

We have covered this in the blog before, but statistics indicate that the chances of divorce increase when the wife falls seriously ill.

In the United States, prominent politicians Newt Gingrich and John Edwards both separated from wives who had been diagnosed with cancer.

Sadly, my experience as a divorce lawyer has put me in contact with several women going through this regrettable situation. Reading the Huffington Post piece reminded me of one such example.

She came to us shortly after finishing chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, having been told by her husband that he “couldn’t take this any more” and that he was leaving.

Despite her initial hopes to salvage her marriage, the husband had already moved on. He had a new house and a new girlfriend.

I remember telling her to concentrate on her battle against cancer. She needed to forget about fighting the divorce; that was my job, and I was happy to do it.

In this case, it was a surprisingly tough fight given the circumstances, but we were able to get a substantial sum paid to the wife which meant she had no further money worries. She deserved every penny.

The sad fact is that people do leave cancer-stricken spouses. To fight cancer and still go through a divorce is as hard and tough as you could ever imagine.

I recall receiving one letter about a cancer-stricken wife suggesting a drug she was taking had no discernible effect on her condition and would no longer be paid for. I didn’t trouble my client with a letter which I knew would terrify her; I sent it straight back to the solicitor and suggested his client reconsider.

When married to a spouse with cancer, perhaps the healthy spouse simply cannot emotionally cope with the deterioration in their partner’s health and the loss of a more carefree lifestyle; the additional stress, the worry and the constant fears which won’t go away and turn into terrors for the cancer patient at night time. They may think it is far better to move on and enjoy the company of a healthy, sexually active, attractive partner rather than worry over the sick and the dying.

It isn’t my job to judge how people behave. Not everyone is prepared to do what others would regard as the decent thing. But it’s strange; life still has its own funny ways of getting even. The husband in one hard fought case, who had left his cancer-stricken wife, had his last years dogged by constant ill health. I know because he consulted me in regard to his second divorce. His second wife had left him and was seeking a larger settlement, because she was younger than him and her life expectancy was longer too… so what goes round can come round just as hard.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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