Finding Perspective When Diagnosis Leads to Divorce

When Victoria was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer, her husband, Phil, was right there at her side. Two years later, after a double mastectomy and targeted chemo therapy, she was deemed cancer-free. But as Victoria recovered from her last rounds of chemo, Phil delivered devastating news: After 28 years of marriage, he wanted a divorce.* Victoria was a survivor, but now their marriage was terminal.

If you’re going through a divorce on the heels of a serious diagnosis, you are not alone. Chronic illness frequently sparks marital problems —especially in couples age 50-plus. AARP estimates the divorce rate to be as high as 75 percent in couples where one spouse has a serious, chronic illness. When women get sick, it’s worse. A 2009 study published in the journal Cancer found married a woman diagnosed with a serious disease is six times more likely to be divorced or separated than a man with a similar diagnosis.

“It can be tempting to blame a separation or divorce on cancer,” writes author and motivational speaker Nancy Christie in an article for Cancer Fighters Thrive. “But most experts agree that it’s far more likely that the stressors related to the disease simply highlight weak areas that already exist within a relationship.”

When faced with the double-whammy of a serious diagnosis and divorce, don’t go it alone. Seek professional help for body, mind, and spirit to get through the physical and emotional challenges. Consider these steps:

  • Connect with support groups and other organization that provide help specifically for people living with the chronic condition you have. Your treating physician’s office may have suggestions for you.
  • Review insurance. If your spouse provided your health insurance through his employer, you will need to find a new plan. Good news: There are options. You may be eligible to continue that coverage for up to 36 months through COBRA. Also, since divorce is considered a qualifying life event for a special enrollment period, you can enroll in your employer’s plan. Or you can buy a policy directly from a health insurance company or your state’s healthcare marketplace. (It’s illegal for insurers to refuse coverage to someone with a pre-existing condition.)
  • Enlist family and friends to help you with transportation, preparing meals, and other daily tasks; or consider hiring a home health aide to assist you, if possible.
  • Participate in healthy, positive activities. Getting involved in advocacy groups that help spread awareness for the condition you’re living with can help you find kindred spirits and give you the opportunity to help others who are newly diagnosed.
  • Engage a skillful family law attorney to handle all your legal issues so you can focus on your health.
  • Update your Will (and its executors), Power of Attorney, Medical Power of Attorney, Living Will, and Letter of Instructions. Once your divorce is final, don’t forget to change beneficiaries to your life insurance and investment accounts.

As difficult as starting life over post-divorce may be, it’s possible to find a silver lining. “I admit I was angry at my ex at first,” Victoria says. “But today, I am grateful for my diagnosis because it woke me up to what is really important in my life.”

* Real names have been changed.