Child's cancer does not raise divorce risk: study

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Despite some concerns to the contrary, new research suggests that dealing with a child’s cancer does not generally raise parents’ risk of divorce.

Using data on nearly 978,000 married couples in Norway, researchers found that divorce rates between 1974 and 2001 were no higher among couples with a child suffering from cancer compared with other parents.

When other factors were considered, such as parents’ age and family income, couples who had a child with cancer were 4 percent more likely to get divorced than other parents -- a difference that was not significant in statistical terms.

Few studies have looked at divorce among parents of children with cancer. But there is often a “general perception” -- whether at cancer clinics or in support groups -- that the strain of having a child or a spouse with cancer puts couples at risk of divorce, noted Dr. Astri Syse of the Cancer Registry of Norway in Oslo, the lead researcher on the new study.

These perceptions, she told Reuters Health in an email, are “unsubstantiated myths that may add another burden to the people afflicted by cancer or afflicted family members, and thus important to highlight as incorrect.”

“In general, our study ought to reassure parents of children with cancer,” Syse said.

She added, however, that the study was conducted in a country with an extensive welfare system that includes free healthcare, and that may shield couples from some of the economic hardships and other stresses that can affect families dealing with a child’s cancer.

That, according to Syse, leaves the question of whether the findings extend to countries with different health and welfare systems, including the U.S.

The findings, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, are based on national data for all married-with-children Norwegian couples between 1974 and 2001. Overall, 4,590 couples had a child diagnosed with cancer; 535 of them divorced during the study period.

There was no evidence that a child’s cancer raised the risk of divorce in general. Nor were parents more likely to divorce if their child died of cancer.

However, the researchers did find a somewhat increased risk -- of 16 percent -- when mothers had a college education, compared with those with only a high school education. The risk was particularly evident in the first five years after a child’s diagnosis.

The reasons for the finding are unknown. Syse speculated that college-educated mothers might be more likely to have conflicts in balancing professional careers and caring for their children. She pointed out that the risk of divorce was particularly increased when the child had a cancer of the central nervous system, which includes brain cancer, and that these children can go on to have learning disabilities and other long-term problems.

However, Syse said that further studies are needed to confirm the finding on mothers’ education and to tease out the reasons for it.

SOURCE: Journal of Clinical Oncology, online December 28, 2009.