6 mins. read

How to support a coworker with cancer

Support your colleague at work as they navigate a cancer diagnosis, treatment and beyond

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Key takeaways

  • Be flexible: A coworker with cancer may need time off for appointments or to recuperate from treatments. They also may not be able to carry the same workload as they did before they received their diagnosis. Be prepared to cover some of their tasks or help them with their work duties if asked.
  • Ask questions: Try not to talk about other people’s experiences of cancer as this can cause worry for your coworker. Instead, ask them how they are feeling or how you can help. For many people with cancer, having a ‘normal’ conversation is welcomed so you can also ask them day to day questions about their weekend or their family.
  • Respect their boundaries: Communicating with your coworker is essential for understanding their boundaries about their needs, what they are willing to share and their triggers. It’s also important that you respect your coworker’s privacy and keep anything they tell you about their diagnosis confidential.

Learning that a coworker has cancer can be an upsetting, concerning and uncertain time for the entire team. If you aren’t sure about what to say or how you can support them, then you aren’t alone. 

This guide provides information about how to offer support to a colleague as they navigate a cancer diagnosis, treatment and beyond.

What can I do for a coworker with cancer?

Learn about their diagnosis

Learning about your coworker’s diagnosis will help you understand what they’re going through. There is a wealth of resources available on and offline such as videos, podcasts, books, TV programmes and guides such as this one that will provide insight into how your coworker might be feeling physically and emotionally. 

Depending on your relationship with your coworker, it might even be appropriate to ask them about their diagnosis and how they are feeling both physically and emotionally. 

Remember everyone is different. Whilst some people may find it upsetting to talk about in too much detail, others may appreciate the opportunity to discuss their diagnosis and how it is affecting them. Take their lead and you’ll approach the subject more sensitively and in tune with how they’re feeling.

What to say and what not to say

It can be difficult to know what to say to a coworker going through chemo or any type of cancer treatment. You may even feel awkward about starting a conversation, but it’s important that what you do say is sincere and empathetic. It’s ok to say ‘I’m thinking about you’ or ‘I’m sorry that this is happening to you’ as such phrases are simple yet meaningful.

Avoid talking about other people you know who have had cancer. This can cause your coworker to worry about their outlook or compare their situation to someone else’s, but everybody’s cancer story is unique and complex

While telling your coworker that everything will be alright may be well-meaning, overly positive comments like this can be unhelpful and minimise what your coworker is going through. What is sometimes referred to as ‘toxic positivity’ can cause a person to feel unable to talk about what is happening leading them to feel alone or isolated.

Also, try not to comment on your co-worker’s appearance. How someone battling cancer looks isn’t a reflection of the severity of their condition or a consequence of their treatment. Your coworker is likely to be processing a lot of emotions and remarks about how they look so it could cause further upset.

Find out more about how to support someone with cancer.

Treat them as you normally would

It can be easy to want to show unwavering support to a coworker with cancer, but this doesn’t mean that the conversation always needs to be about their diagnosis. Remember that while their life circumstances have changed, they haven’t. For many people living with cancer, having a ‘normal’ conversation is appreciated.

If your relationship with your coworker before their diagnosis was light-hearted and based on humour, it’s still ok to crack a joke. Look out for cues from your coworker and use your intuition to help you decide if it is the right time and occasion to do so.

Be mindful that they’ll need time off

If your coworker continues to work during their treatment, they are likely to need days off to attend appointments, have scans, and rest. 

In their absence, you may be asked to take on extra responsibilities to help cover their workload. It’s understandable if you feel more pressure at work as a result but try not to let this lead to ill-feeling towards your coworker.

Respect confidentiality

It is up to your coworker to decide who they share their diagnosis with and what they tell people about their situation. Everyone is different and whilst one person may be very upfront and honest, another might prefer to keep things private. 

Unless your coworker has explicitly said it’s ok to discuss with others, assume that anything you talk about with them about their cancer diagnosis should be kept to yourself.

Giving cards and gifts to your coworker

During treatment, there are some things that patients can’t tolerate or shouldn’t have such as certain foods, flowers, or heavily scented items. If you want to get your coworker a gift to express that you are thinking of them, why not ask them what they need? It could be that they would love some magazines to read while undergoing chemo treatments or could use an unscented lip balm to combat dry lips.

If you are still unsure, you could get them a gift card so that they can buy what they need in their own time. You could even offer your time to run errands or help them with household chores.

Sending a card with a heartfelt message inside is also a nice idea. Taking phone calls or responding to emails can be tiring for those with cancer but they can read and appreciate a card in their own time.

Taking care of yourself

Whilst receiving a cancer diagnosis is tough, supporting someone with cancer can also be difficult. You are likely to experience a range of feelings which can include worry, sadness, frustration, and stress. It can be helpful to acknowledge these emotions and take time to process them.

The dynamic at work may have changed and this can impact you too. It’s understandable if you need to talk to someone or get support yourself. There may be counselling or support groups that you can access through work. It can be helpful to talk to your manager if you have workload concerns.

If you’ve found this article helpful, why not share it with your employer? Your workplace can help support your team even further with Perci’s virtual care clinic. We provide next generation cancer workplace support to employees impacted by cancer from the UK’s leading experts.

While we have ensured that every article is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to one of our healthcare professionals or your primary healthcare team.

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