When Someone You Work With Has Cancer

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Basic do’s and don’ts when your co-worker has cancer

Do:

  • Take your cues from the person with cancer. Some people are very private while others will talk openly about their illness. Respect the person’s need to share or their need for privacy.
  • Let them know you care.
  • Respect their decisions about how their cancer will be treated, even if you disagree.
  • Include the person with cancer in usual work projects and social events. Let them be the one to tell you if the commitment is too much to manage.
  • Listen without always feeling that you have to respond. Sometimes a caring listener is what the person needs the most.
  • Expect your co-worker to have good days and bad days, emotionally and physically.
  • Keep your relationship as normal and balanced as possible. While greater patience and compassion are called for during times like these, your colleague should continue to respect your feelings, as you respect their feelings.
  • Offer to help in concrete, specific ways.
  • Check before doing something for your co-worker, no matter how helpful you think you are being.
  • Keep them up-to-date with what’s happening at work.
  • Send cards, and include anecdotes about why they are missed. If people send individual cards, they may have more impact.

Don’t:

  • Offer advice they don’t ask for, or be judgmental.
  • Assume that he or she can’t do the job. Your co-worker needs to feel like a valuable, contributing member of your company or department.
  • Feel you must put up with serious displays of temper or mood swings. You shouldn’t accept disruptive or abusive behavior just because someone is ill.
  • Take things too personally. It’s normal for your co-worker to be quieter than usual, to need time alone, and to be angry at times.
  • Be afraid to talk about the illness.
  • Always feel you have to talk about cancer. Your colleague may enjoy conversations that don’t involve the illness.
  • Be afraid to hug or touch your friend if that was a part of your friendship before the illness.
  • Be patronizing. (Try not to use a “How sick are you today?” tone when asking how they’re doing.)
  • Tell your co-worker, “I can imagine how you must feel,” because you really can’t.
  • Go to work if you’re sick. If you have a fever or any other sign of infection, don’t risk sharing it with any of your co-workers, but especially your co-worker with cancer.

Last Medical Review: 05/13/2014
Last Revised: 05/13/2014