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

Jeannie

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.

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