Five times in the past two months I’ve been asked advice about how to help a friend whose spouse has been diagnosed with cancer. It’s a bit unnerving the number of young families being impacted by cancer. As the grateful recipient of support and prayers during my late husband’s 12-year struggle with the disease and its treatments, I’ve learned much about the practicalities of helping a friend or family member in this situation.
One recent inquiry was from a distant in-law asking how he could help one of his best friends cope with the recent diagnosis of his wife’s cancer. His email read (reprinted with permission, names changed):
“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.”
Following is some of the advice I offered that may help others in a similar situation.
During the throws of diagnosis and the initial treatments, the couple is most likely hunkering down, in disbelief, in shock, and in full on fight mode. I’m sure friend’s that live close by are rallying, but know that that lasts for a relatively short time (compared to the duration of some cancers), maybe a few months, and then some friends will fall away as their cancer story becomes stale.
There is something very important you can do from a physical distance. Your friend’s wife is getting much care and inquiries from doctors, nurses, friends and family. She is being asked how she is doing. How the children are doing. What can folks do to help. Your friend is also being asked how is his wife is doing, how their children are doing, what can people do to help him take care of his wife. The focus is on her, as it should be, and her path to better health.
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, we tend to focus on the patient and often overlook the impact of the situation on the primary caregiver and the immediate family members. We will tell our friend to let us know how we can help, without realizing most caregivers in this situation are so busy just trying to support their ill spouse and take care of their children, that they don’t have the time, energy, nor the space to stop and think what they need.
I know the urge is to feel you need to be physically present to help, but don’t underestimate the power of friendship in times like these. You can help from distance by checking in on him regularly via text, phone calls, and emails. Ask him how he is doing. If you can get him to open up and talk about his own feelings, fears, and concerns, it will help immensely. Out of habit, he may talk about his wife’s condition, treatments and procedures, but stay focused on him. Don’t be tempted to offer advice or feel you need to solve his problems. Reaching out to your friend on a regular basis, asking him how he is doing, and listening openly can be a critical part of his support system through this extremely challenging time.