real life

'My boyfriend broke up with me over text when I got cancer. And I'm not the only one.'

Maddy was 23 when she was diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumour; a cancerous growth in her bowel. Days later, her boyfriend of just over two years broke up with her — over text.

"I didn't want to tell him about the diagnosis because I knew he wouldn't want to deal with it and that it would break us up. But there was a little part of me that was hopeful," Maddy tells Mamamia.

"When he texted me telling me that he 'couldn't do this anymore' I had this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach."

Men leaving when their partner falls sick is surprisingly common, according to research. And statistically, men are more commonly the one who leaves. Studies further show that 'partner abandonment' happens a lot among cancer patients and that women are six times more likely to be left soon after a diagnosis than if the patient was a man.

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"He couldn't face the thought of losing me," says Maddy. "But instead of talking it out with me and allowing himself to be truly vulnerable, he blocked out what was happening and chose to leave.

"He couldn't 'fix' it. I was sick and none of us had control over what was going to happen. I understand that's super scary, I mean, I was scared. But being abandoned in that moment was the last thing I needed. It still makes me want to cry just thinking about it."


A year prior to her cancer diagnosis, Maddy was unwell with gallstones and this is when she noticed her relationship first began to change. She'd been feeling nauseous, dizzy, and kept getting infections and abdominal pain. Doctors said it was stress-related. But finally, when she was sent to get a scan, they found that her gallbladder was full of gallstones. She needed surgery to get them removed.

Her partner went with her to the initial appointment, but after that, something shifted.

"It was like he switched off," she says.

"I realised when I was in hospital post-surgery, that he hadn't come to visit me, sent me flowers, called or texted at all. I'd initiated all the contact. There were [COVID] restrictions at the time, so I clocked it down to that. But I was so sick and focused on staying healthy that I hadn't noticed until a few weeks had gone by and I started to feel really alone."

Then, when she got home, he stopped coming over as much. They were still together, but he barely replied to her texts. She was in recovery, so says she wasn't processing what was going on.

Later, they'd argue about it.

"I just couldn’t understand why he hadn't been there for me," Maddy says. "He'd say things like 'we're on a rock floating in space, does it really matter?' which would confuse me, because it mattered to me."

Maddy. Image: Supplied.


According to Dr Ketan Parmar, a psychiatrist at ClinicSpots, the phenomenon of partners leaving their significant other when they get diagnosed with an illness or as a disease progresses is sad, but not uncommon.

"I've witnessed it in my practice," she tells Mamamia. Dr Parmar noted some of the reasons often include:

  • Fear of losing the person they love and not being able to cope with the grief.
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the caregiving responsibilities and the emotional stress.
  • Resentment towards the sick partner for changing the plans and expectations of the relationship.
  • Loss of intimacy and connection with the sick partner due to physical or mental changes.
  • Guilt for having negative feelings or thoughts about the sick partner or the situation.
  • Seeking comfort or escape from another person who can fulfill their needs and desires.

Siobhan Rogers, Canteen's National Clinical Advisor, says that relationship breakdowns are stressful enough as is, without adding onto that not being at your physical or mental self.

"Stress has an impact on the body and mind. If you are looking down the barrel of cancer and also have a significant relationship breakdown, it's incredibly impactful," she tells Mamamia.


Rogers has witnessed many relationship breakdowns throughout the cancer journey with her work at Canteen, an Australian cancer support organisation.

"People are complicated and relationship breakdowns often occur when significant impactful life events unfold."

Maddy's cancer diagnosis came a year after her gallbladder issues and despite her hopefulness — her partner didn't want to be a part of the journey with her.

"I really couldn’t believe I was that sick, because I was so young. It's not common for people in their early twenties to get cancer, just generally. I always had this sense that I would be okay, but not having that support from him made it even more difficult to comprehend," she explains.

"Just a year earlier, we'd been so in love. I thought he was my person. But instead of hating him, I just felt like I was asking a lot of someone so young to be there for me in such an intense way. It's not an easy thing to do.

"Because I'm removed from it now, I can understand it a lot better. I understand why he did it and that it probably wasn't an easy decision. I also understand that it wasn't a healthy relationship. I wouldn't wish the way I felt in those months upon anybody."

The impact of partner abandonment on the patient can be devastating and traumatic, says Dr Ketan Parmar. Some of the possible effects include increased depression, anxiety, anger, loneliness, and hopelessness as well as reduced self-esteem, self-worth, and confidence.

It can also impact coping skills and resilience throughout the cancer journey and even decrease adherence to treatment and self-care while increasing the risk of complications, infections, or mortality.


Maddy experienced some of these during her cancer journey, as well as afterwards.

"It's hard to have a positive outlook on relationships when you've experienced abandonment in such a brutal way. I still have love for him. How could I not? He was my first love. But I don't like him. I can't imagine doing what he did to someone I love," she says.

"It's impacted how I view relationships now. I don't trust myself as much, because did he really love me at all? To me, the way he behaved wasn't love. And that's hard to come to terms with."

Rogers is keen to question how the stats would hold up for same-sex and gender-diverse couples. She says that if we look more closely, the answer may lie in the roles we play in relationships.

"The person who holds more of the mental and caregiving role and who spends a lot of their time and energy meeting the other partner's needs, if they are diagnosed with cancer and aren't going to be able to continue to function in the usual role, this could be a cause for a relationship breakdown," she says.

It shows that if women can't fulfill their role in the relationship due to sickness, their partner is more likely to leave. But Maddy says if the roles were reversed, she wouldn't have been able to do the same.

"I would've been there hands down every day, calling the doctors, going to appointments with him and visiting every day," says Maddy.

"I would've thrown myself in the deep end and done everything I could to support, help and show him love."

Featured Image: Supplied.