Getting diagnosed with breast cancer is bad enough. But getting dumped by the guy you're seeing right afterwards is sort of like finding a piece of spoiled lettuce on your crap sandwich.
Granted, the guy I was dating wasn't exactly husband — or even steady boyfriend — material; it was far too early in the game for that. But there was something there. Until things started getting "heavy." Then, not only was the "something" gone, so was he.
Unfortunately, I'm not alone when it comes to the cancer kiss-off.
When Cindy Wine was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago, she came home from her first radiation treatment to an empty house.
"My husband said he couldn't go with me — he was too busy at work," says the 55-year-old former radio host from Indianapolis. "But when I got home, all of his stuff was gone. I felt like somebody had punched me in the gut."
Cancer? I'm outta here!
Interestingly enough, people have actually studied this phenomenon and discovered that a woman is six times more likely to be separated or divorced shortly after a diagnosis of cancer or multiple sclerosis than a man diagnosed with the same diseases.
Researchers at three medical centers looked at 515 patients -- some with a malignant brain tumor, some with multiple sclerosis and some with cancerous tumors from melanoma, lymphoma, colorectal cancer, etc. Almost half the patients were women.
"The results were similar across all three cohorts," says Dr. Marc Chamberlain, chief of neuro-oncology at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and co-author of the 2009 study entitled "Gender Disparity in the Rate of Partner Abandonment in Patients with Serious Medical Illness."
"We did find women who had abandoned male partners, but the differences were striking. There (were) a disproportionate number of partner abandonments in female patients."
Curious as to what this was all about, I called Dr. Chamberlain, who admitted his results made men look like "bottom-dwelling, scum-sucking creatures" then offered insights as to why so many men pull a "Gingrich" or a "Lackey." (Both former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Red Sox pitcher John Lackey supposedly ditched their wives in the middle of a cancer battle.)
"Men may be very well equipped to be primary providers but not so well equipped to be primary caregivers," he says. "I think men are challenged in caring for someone who has disease and treatment-related symptoms — managing the stress, managing the logistics."
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Cindy Wine says her husband actually sent her an email the night he disappeared, trying to explain his actions.
"He told me, 'I can't deal with this. It's too much stress for me right now,'" she says. "I just thought, 'What the hell stress are you going through? I'm the one with cancer."
Fear and loathing
Psycho-oncologist Mindy Greenstein, a former chief psychiatric fellow at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (and a breast cancer survivor herself),says some of the men who walk out on their partners may not even know why they're leaving.
"Are they frustrated? Are they afraid? Are they looking for a woman who's not missing body parts?" she says. "Who really knows what's in their brain. And who knows that women don't have the same inclination but feel too guilty to leave."
And then there's the question of who actually pushes for the divorce.
"Were there signals that preceded diagnoses that divorce was imminent?" says Chamberlain, of his study. "We didn't know that nor did we necessarily know who was the driver of the divorce."
Chamberlain says one thing they did discover was that the longer a couple was together, the more likely it was they'd stay together after a bad diagnosis.
In other words, my fledgling romance with Mr. Compassionate probably didn't stand a chance, although to be honest the guy did insist "it's not cancer, it's you."
As if that's supposed to make me feel better.
Whatever the case, though, not all cancer-stricken couples are destined to split up.
New roles, new role models
Greenstein says in her experience "the vast majority of men don't leave their wives." (Martina McBride's new hit single "I'm Going to Love You Through It," tells the story of one such stand-up mate.)
Some men, in fact, embrace the caregiver role so adamantly they end up carving out new niches for themselves.
Journalist Mark Silver, author of the book and blog "Breast Cancer Husband," is a frequent lecturer on caregiving, offering advice to scores of "clueless breast cancer husbands."
Rob Harris, a 56-year-old human resources professional from Orlando who runs the advice blog www.robcares.com, has also reinvented himself since his wife began battling cancer.
"[Having a spouse diagnosed] is emotionally traumatic and you go into a fog and say 'I don't know what to do,'" he says. "There's no doubt about it, caregiving is probably the toughest thing I've done in my life."
Despite that, Harris says there are plenty of rewards.
"My wife and I fell more deeply in love because we no longer could take each other for granted," he says.
Tackling cancer as a single woman isn't the end of the world, either. Take it from me. Or Nicole Strang, whose boyfriend of eight years left her shortly after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
"When my boyfriend left, I had no hair, a port in my chest, and a huge ugly scar on my belly," says Strang, a 46-year-old retail manager from Cary, N.C. "I felt really ugly and it sucked while I was going through it. But him breaking up with me was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was a blessing. I found myself again."
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