Supporting a friend whose spouse has cancer

Every few months friends or family will ask for suggestions on how to support someone with young kids whose 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 breast cancer. His friend has two young daughters.

The email

“The wife of one of my best friends was just diagnosed with breast cancer. I know how difficult the whole journey will be for his wife Deb, but also for my friend Mike who is trying to hold his family together as you did. 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.” (Printed with permission and names changed).

My advice

During the throws of diagnosis and initial treatment, your friend and his wife are most likely hunkering down, in disbelief, shock, and in 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 old news.

When the initial shock and awe calms, your friend’s spouse will continue to receive regular inquiries and support from doctors, nurses, friends, and family. Your friend is also being asked regularly how his wife is doing.

When a person is diagnosed with cancer, we often focus our energies on the patient and overlook the impact on the Well Parent™ and the children. We’ll ask the healthy parent to let us know how we can help, not realizing they don’t have the time or energy to figure out what help they need. The Well Parent™ is often on autopilot, or in a fright or flight state of mind, juggling many tasks at once. For them to take a few minutes to stop and think how you could help is a luxury in their world.

Don’t underestimate the power of friendship

The urge is to feel you need to be physically present to help your friend through his spouse’s cancer. Don’t underestimate the power of friendship. Even if you live six states away you can provide tremendous help by checking in on your friend via text, phone, or email. Ask them how they are doing. Get them to open up and talk about their feelings, fears, and concerns. Out of habit, they may talk about their spouse’s condition, treatments and procedures, but stay focused on your friend and their feelings.

Ideas on how to help from a distance

Reach out on a regular basis – text, email, or phone

Ask how they are doing

Listen openly

Don’t be tempted to solve their problems

Even if you live six states away, you can be a critical part of your friend’s support system through this challenging time.


Jeannie Gazzaniga Moloo PhD, MS, RDN cared for her late physician husband through 12 years of blood cancer treatments, including a stem cell transplant, while raising their three young children. She is an award winning registered dietitian nutritionist and former owner of a clinical nutrition practice where she advised clients on healthy eating to manage heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and gastrointestinal conditions. She is a Ph.D. in epidemiology, with an emphasis in preventive medicine and environmental health. For nine years, she was a national media spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics providing sound, science-based nutrition advice to media, consumers, industry, and researchers. She has been quoted in several publications including the LA Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, and Parents Magazine, and appeared on ABCNews, CBSNews, NBCNews, NPR, and KYGO-FM.

Reader Interactions


  1. Mary R Marcum says

    My friends husband who just fell into my life from covid 19 situation, we live across the street from each other but our work schedules never allowed us to be friends. I have been burnt as a friend so I am very scared of opening up. I told her that after a few great days away from the houses. I think I am supposed to be here for her. We click like we have been best friends for years. It’s funny cause I again usually shy away from having friends. I am a consultant Dietitian for nursing homes so I have been home since March since I drive 60 miles to my home 2 days a week. It seemed insane for me to go trying to care for my own comprised spouse who was in an life changing accident 18 year ago we were in our 30s. We have 2 grown son’s and a new 4 month old granddaughter..! Anyway after 26 yr of consultant life u Learn the first few yrs never to make friends at work and as ur the bad guy pointing out all that nursing and your own department is doing wrong. I am not sure why God picked me for this situation and friendship…. I need help a resource to know what to say or do. Or not. I can tell you it’s in incurable and less than yr left assuming or less he tells her very little. I don’t want to run and want to be a good friend. We both have worked from home since March.
    Thank you

    • Jeannie says

      Hello Mary,
      There is a lot in your email. But from what I can glean you are asking about your friend and how to help. In my experience the thing I found most helpful was friends who would listen. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like much, but finding a friend who will take the time to listen and not offer fixes to problems is a treasure. I hope I’m read your email correctly and this helps in some small way. Jeannie

  2. Noreen says

    I’m so glad that I found your website today. Your advice is exactly what I’ve been doing on a daily basis. My heart hurts so badly for my best friend who lives in a different state. Her husband’s cancer is aggressive. He only has weeks to live and his brain is filled with cancer now. Thank you again for your advice.

    • Jeannie says

      I am so sorry to hear Noreen. Cancer can be such a difficult road, liken none other I’ve experienced. I’m glad some of my advice helped. Warm regards, Jeannie

  3. Eli Richardson says

    It really helped when you described how we could help someone with a family member who has cancer. A few weeks ago, my wife said one of her best friends got diagnosed with cancer. My wife and I want to do something to help her friend’s family during these hard times, so I think your article could guide us! Thanks for the advice on making our friend know we’re there for her!

    • Jeannie says

      Hello Eli,
      Thank you for reaching out. I’m glad my advice could help. My apologies for my delayed reply and I hope your wife’s friend is doing better. Jeannie

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