THURSDAY, April 12, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Even though a child's illness can cause severe stress, a new study from Denmark finds that the marriages and partnerships of parents of kids with cancer aren't more likely to fall apart.
The study debunks "a persistent myth that childhood cancer will have a destructive impact on one's marriage and family. This is simply not true," said Anne Kazak, professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Cancer in children is rare, although it's the leading disease-related cause of death in kids under 15. According to the National Cancer Institute, an average of one to two children out of 10,000 develop cancer each year.
In the new study, researchers studied the parents of 2,450 children (up to age 20) who received a diagnosis of cancer between 1980 and 1997. They compared them to the parents of 44,853 similar children who didn't have cancer, and followed them for up to 20 years.
The parents in both groups included both married and unmarried couples who lived together. (As of 1996, cohabiting but unmarried parents accounted for 60 percent of first-born children in Denmark.)
Even after adjusting the findings so they wouldn't be skewed by high or low numbers of people of certain income levels, the researchers found that having a child with cancer didn't affect the likelihood that a couple would separate.
The findings surprised study co-author Dr. Christoffer Johansen, who called the results "good news."
"You could imagine that you would find an increased risk for some cancers and in some marriages, but we didn't find that no matter how we analyzed the data," said Johansen, head of the Unit of Survivorship at the Danish Cancer Society in Copenhagen. "Having a child with cancer doesn't appear to be a risk factor for divorce."
Why are the couples so resilient? Johansen said it may have something to do with how a child's cancer isn't an inherent problem within a couple's relationship.
"It's inside the family, but it's an outside problem -- and now they have to stand together to cope with it," he said. "I think the relationships were able to handle the problems and take care of that strain because you simply need to do that in order to get through everyday life."
Johansen speculated that the findings would be similar in other Western countries like the United States, although they'll depend on factors including access to health insurance.
Kazak said having a child with cancer puts parents under intense strain.
"Learning that your child has cancer remains one of the most distressing experiences possible and distress under these circumstances is, of course, normal," she said. "Families must focus their energy on treatment and supporting the child and other children. But it's essential to remember that the couple's relationship is critical, too, and to think about specific ways of communicating, problem-solving and staying connected during this time."
The study appears in the May issue of the journal Pediatrics.
For more about cancer in children, try the U.S. National Library of Medicine.