When Someone You Work With Has Cancer

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Offering support to a co-worker with cancer

There’s a lot that you, as a co-worker or supervisor of someone facing cancer, can do to help. Work plays an important part in the lives of most people, and your help and understanding can make an important difference on the impact the illness has on your colleague. Communication and flexibility are the keys to success.

How can I be supportive?

Remember that your co-worker may find it hard to ask for help, or may be worried about seeming weak or vulnerable. Telling a person, “You’re so brave” or “You’re so strong” can put pressure on them to act strong when they may not feel up to it. Families can put subtle pressure on people with cancer by expecting or needing them to be strong all the time. In that case, you might play an important role for your co-worker. Your co-worker may know you well and trust you enough to confide in you, yet you don’t have the emotional attachment and expectations of a family member. This kind of relationship can be a great gift for a person facing cancer.

It’s human nature to distance yourself from someone when they become ill. Cancer can force us to look at our own fears about illness, weakness, or death. This may make us reluctant to interact with a co-worker facing cancer. But isolation can be a problem for people with cancer. Make an extra effort to reach out.

When your co-worker returns to work, you might want to welcome them back by leaving something on their desk such as a card, a cookie or muffin, a flower, or some other token to let them know people have missed them. It’s certainly appropriate to invite your co-worker out to lunch when they return, either for a celebration, or just for a break from the routine. This may also serve as a signal that you are not uncomfortable around them.

If your co-worker needs medical equipment or money for treatment, you can look into getting something donated or organize a raffle to help raise money. Or you can simply take up a collection to buy something they need that might not be covered by insurance.

Your co-worker may look to you for advice regarding financial worries, work issues, or other concerns. Be honest. Help if you can, but if you feel uncomfortable, say so. There are many places a person can get help and support, and you might suggest that they seek the advice of a professional who is best suited to give that kind of guidance. For more information, please see our document called Financial Guidance for Cancer Survivors and Their Families: How to Find a Financial Professional Sensitive to Cancer Issues.

What are some concrete ways I can help?

Communication is the key. Talk regularly with your co-worker about the best way to manage the workload and illness. You can encourage your colleague to maintain as normal a routine as possible, and protect yourself from taking on a too-heavy workload by helping out. Offer to help your co-worker set realistic expectations about work during this time. Keep treating them as normally as possible, including them in regular meetings, memos, and social events. If your colleague isn’t up to doing something, let them make the decision to say no.

Ask your colleague what they could use; let them tell you what would be most helpful. Offer to help in specific ways, rather than saying, “Call me if I can help.” Here are some ideas:

  • Send or prepare a meal. Arrange a schedule of meal delivery.
  • Offer to help with child care. Arrange a schedule of day care pick-ups.
  • Give your co-worker a ride to and from treatment appointments.
  • Help run errands.
  • Donate sick or vacation time.
  • Offer to take their phone calls if they’re feeling tired and need to rest.
  • Offer to do some of their work during absences so work won’t pile up.
  • Appoint a person at work who can give information about how the person is doing and serve as the contact person for the staff in the workplace, as well as the patient and family.
  • Coordinate visits by groups of co-workers, or coordinate sending cards, flowers, or gifts.
  • Honor your colleague by making contributions to related charities, organizing blood drives, or making special efforts in their name.
  • Offer to do some research on their unanswered cancer questions, or refer them to the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345.
  • If the person agrees, plan a party when treatment is finished or on anniversary dates. Always check with the person before making party plans, including showing them the list of those to be invited.

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