Ever few months I’ll receive an email or call asking for my advice on how to support a friend whose spouse has been diagnosed with cancer. It’s unnerving the number of young families dealing with a parent newly diagnosed with the disease.
Recently, a cousin emailed asking how he could help his best friend whose wife was recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“The wife of one of my best friends was just diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I know how difficult the whole journey will be for his wife Deb, but also for my friend Mike who has to try to hold the family together as you did (they have two young girls). Mike and I are very close and have been friends for 25 years. They live in another state, so we are not physically nearby. I’m struggling with what I can do to support him, particularly given I don’t live in the same city. I worry about getting too intrusive or getting too upset, but I also can tell that her family is there, focused on helping her, and I know that he is going to go through some difficult times. I’m guessing there is no simple answer to what is the best thing I can do to support Mike, but if you have any advice about what to do or not to do given your experience I would very much welcome it.” (Permission was granted to use the email and the names have been changed.)
During the throws of diagnosis and initial treatments, your friend and his wife are most likely hunkering down, in disbelief, shock, and full on fight mode. I’m sure local friends are rallying, but that typically lasts for a short time (compared to the duration of some cancers), maybe a few months. Eventually the attention will fade as the couple’s cancer story becomes stale.
Your friend’s ill spouse is receiving regular inquiries from doctors, nurses, friends, and family. The focus of care is centered on making sure her needs are met as much as possible. Your friend is also being asked how his ill wife is doing. The focus is on her, as it should be, and her path to better health.
When a person is diagnosed with cancer, we often focus our energies on the patient overlooking the impact on the well parent. We’ll ask the well parent to let us know how we can help. We often fail to realize most well parents are so busy caring for their ill spouse and children they don’t have the time or energy to stop and think what help they need.
The is to feel you need to be physically present to help. Don’t underestimate the power of friendship in times like these. Even if you live six states away you can help by checking in on your friend regularly via text, phone call, and emails. Ask them how they are doing. If you can, get them to open up and talk about their feelings, fears, and concerns, it will help immensely. Out of habit, they may talk about their spouse’s condition, treatments and procedures, but stay focused on your friend and their feelings.
Reach out on a regular basis. Don’t be tempted to solve their problems. Ask them how they are doing and listen openly. You can be a critical part of their support system, even from a physical distance, through this extremely challenging time.