What to Say or Do When Your Coworker Has Cancer

What to Say When Your Coworker Has Cancer

You never expect to walk into work one day and be told your coworker has cancer. It doesn’t matter how well any of you know your colleague. Aside from the obvious reality that their illness will change their lives and that of their family dramatically, the fact that someone you work with has cancer will impact you and your workplace. Whether you work directly with this person or merely know them in passing, our work relationships are so varied and unique that it’s often hard to pinpoint the right thing to do or say. Next to the support that a cancer patient gets from their family and friends, the support you can provide as a coworker or manager will have a tremendous impact on their road to recovery.

Here are a few ways you can support a coworker, either through the things you do to help them get through the illness or the words you share with them to let them know that you care.

Offer Your Listening Ears

If you can’t find the words, let your presence to speak for you. Hold their hand, give them a big hug, or just sit with them. Your willingness to be there for them may make them feel safe enough to talk about their fears, their feelings, and the roller coaster of emotions they are going through. Knowing that someone is willing to listen can make all the difference in the world. As you spend time listening, you’ll gradually begin to get to know them better, understand their feelings, and most of all, get a better idea as to the things you can do or say to help them.

Speak from Your Heart

When you don’t know what to say, don’t put your foot in your mouth by saying something that will turn an anxious moment into a tundra. Don’t say something like, “Everything will be just fine.” You don’t know whether it will be, and your words come off sounding like the empty platitudes that they are. Don’t be afraid to be honest. When you say, “I’m so sorry; I don’t have a clue as to what I should or want to say,” you’re brutally honest, while showing that you care.

Figure Out How You Can Be Most Helpful

Remember that cancer affects everyone differently. Some people may relish having visitors. Other people may not feel up to being social or talking to people. You can always send caring notes or cards or drop off a basket of comfort items like lip balms, lotions, slippers, a cap or head turban, books, or magazines. Be cautious with gifts of food because treatment can certainly affect the appetite. Ask if there is something they would like to have. They may love to have you pick them up a chocolate shake or fast food french fries!

Offer to drive your friend to chemotherapy or radiation treatment appointments. Get a group of co-workers together to set up a volunteer network so you all can relieve your friend and their family of day-to-day burdens. Offer to run errands, do the grocery shopping, drive the kids around, or bring dinner over one or more nights a week.

Donate Unused Vacation or Sick Time

We often hear about people whose lives are severely impacted by illness and how worried they are about exhausting their sick leave, risking the loss of insurance if they have to take unpaid time off of work, or the worst case scenario – losing their job. If your employer agrees to this, there is one thing you can do that will help your fellow worker more than anything. If everyone agrees to donate vacation time, comp time, or sick time, the combination of time that everyone gives may give your friend a lot of paid time off, so they don’t have to worry about the financial burden on their family. What a relief that can be!

A cancer diagnosis is scary for anyone. For some people, the prospect of telling their employer and colleagues may be even scarier. What you say is a lot less important than how you react and what you do. No one wants to face treatment when they’re worried about their job security or whether they have the support of their employer and fellow employees. The success of any cancer treatment depends on a lot more than the physical strength of the person who is undergoing it. Knowing that they have the support of an entire company and all of their fellow employees gives them the emotional strength they will need to be able to call themselves “survivors.”


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One comment on “What to Say or Do When Your Coworker Has Cancer
  1. One of the worst things I encountered was the lack of emotional support. I was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Both my parents died many years ago. No other family on my side but a lot on my husband’s side. My MIL told me not to worry because kidney cancer wasn’t really cancer. My husband and I moved about 10 years prior to another state so it is just the two of us. I needed mental support more than anything. Fortunately, I’m two years out and although I have spots on my lungs, those have remained stable and nothing else has shown up on my kidneys or other organs. Again, fortunate, but it still really hurts.

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