Cancer patients often face relationship problems, say health care professionals

'The idea that cancer brings a couple closer together is a romanticised idea'

A series of interviews with professionals working in cancer care conducted by the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant have revealed that relationship problems are worryingly common amongst cancer patients.

Psychiatrist Leo van Weezel of the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital in Amsterdam said: "Cancer can turn patients into extremely unpleasant, difficult partners. The idea that cancer brings a couple closer together is a romanticised idea. This assumption makes people feel even lonelier; they feel they’re not fulfilling expectations."

Van Weezel also emphasised that contrary to popular belief, it isn’t just the couples who had a strained relationship prior to diagnosis that end up in trouble. In his experience, cancer can have devastating effects on any partnership.

Oncologist Marcel Soesan, who works at the Slotervaart hospital in the Dutch capital, estimates that his team has to step in to help with relationship difficulties in a quarter of cancer cases. “We’re alert when it comes to this. People in this situation have a lot to cope with”, he said.

Social support has frequently been shown to have a significant impact on the outcome of cancer treatment. Those whose partner leaves them after a cancer diagnosis are less likely to complete their therapy or try new treatment options.

The health care professionals interviewed by de Volkskrant expressed their worries following the news that help with relationship problems will no longer be funded for cancer patients due to cuts to health services. Here in the UK, funded couples counselling is usually only on offer if one of the partners is suffering from a mental health problem which affects the relationship.

The Cancer Counselling Trust offered free counselling to cancer patients, but was forced to discontinue their service in 2010 due to financial hardship. With around 910 people in the UK being diagnosed with cancer every day, there are many out there coping with the effects of the diagnosis on their relationship.

Women who are diagnosed with cancer appear to be especially at risk of losing the support of their significant other. Research led by Dr. Marc Chamberlain, chief of the neuro-oncology division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, showed that women who fall ill are far more likely to be abandoned by their partners than men in the same position.

Chamberlain and his team found that although overall divorce rates of couples with one seriously ill spouse were comparable to the general divorce rate in the US, there was a marked difference depending on which partner had received the diagnosis. In cases where the husband became seriously ill, divorce rates were actually far lower than average at three per cent. However, a staggering 21 per cent of wives who had been diagnosed with serious illness ended up separated or divorced within the same time frame.

In fact, Chamberlain’s study revealed that in ninety per cent of post-diagnosis divorce cases, the wife was the sick party. The researchers suggested that a possible explanation for this striking difference could be that men find it harder to take on a care-giving role.

The psychiatrist van Weezel hopes that by talking about the relationship strains that cancer patients go through, this common issue will soon become universally acknowledged.

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