When Someone You Work With Has Cancer

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Ways to respond when your co-worker has cancer

What should I say to my co-worker who has cancer?

You’re not alone if you don’t know what to say to someone who has cancer. It can be harder in the workplace because relationships with co-workers are so varied. You might not know the person very well, or you may have worked together for many years and be close friends. The most important thing you can do is to mention the situation in some way that feels comfortable for you. You can show interest and concern, you can express encouragement, and/or you can offer support. Sometimes the simplest expressions of concern are the most meaningful. And sometimes just listening is the most helpful thing you can do.

Respond from your heart! Here are some ideas:

  • “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”
  • “I’m sorry to hear that you are going through this.”
  • “How are you doing?”
  • “If you would like to talk about it, I’m here.”
  • “Please let me know how I can help.”
  • “I’ll keep you in my thoughts.”

While it’s good to be encouraging, it’s also important not to show false optimism, or tell your co-worker to always stay positive. Doing so might make your co-worker think you are discounting their very real fears, concerns, or sad feelings. It’s also tempting to say that you know how the person feels. But while you may know that this is a trying time, no one else can know exactly how any person with cancer feels.

Using humor can be an important way of coping. It can also be another source of support and encouragement. Let your co-worker take the lead; it’s healthy if they find something funny about a side effect, like hair loss or increased appetite, and you can certainly join them in a good laugh. This can be a great way to relieve stress and take a break from the more serious nature of the situation. But you never want to joke unless you know your co-worker can handle it and appreciate the humor.

When your colleague looks good, let them know! Avoid making comments when their appearance isn’t as good, such as “You’re looking pale,” or “You’ve lost weight.” It’s very likely that they’re acutely aware of it, and they may feel embarrassed if people comment on it.

It’s usually best not to share stories about family members or friends who have had cancer. Everyone is different, and these stories may not be helpful. Instead, it’s OK to let them know that you are familiar with cancer because you’ve been through it with someone else. Then your co-worker can pick up the conversation from there.

What about confidentiality?

Respect your co-worker’s privacy. If your co-worker tells you about having cancer, you should never tell anyone else unless your co-worker has given you permission. Let them be the one to tell others. If someone else asks you about it, you can say something like, “It’s not up to me to discuss this, but I’m sure Ann will appreciate your concern. I’ll let her know you asked about her.”

It might feel awkward if you hear “through the office grapevine” that a co-worker has cancer. You could ask the person who told you if it’s public information. If it’s not, you probably shouldn’t say anything to the person with cancer. But if it is public information, don’t ignore it. You might say to your co-worker, in a caring way, “I heard what’s happening, and I’m sorry.”

You may feel angry or hurt if a co-worker who’s close to you didn’t share the news of a cancer diagnosis with you right away. No matter how close you are, it may take time for the person to adjust to the diagnosis and be ready to tell others. Don’t take it personally. Focus on how you can support your co-worker now that you know. For more about this, please see our document called After Diagnosis: A Guide for Patients and Families.

How do I overcome feeling uncomfortable around my co-worker who has cancer?

Feeling sorry for them, or feeling guilty for being healthy yourself, are normal responses. But by turning those feelings into offerings of support you make the feelings useful. Asking how you can help can take away some of the awkwardness. Cancer is a scary disease. It can create a great deal of uneasiness for people who don’t have experience dealing with it. Don’t be ashamed of your own fears or discomfort. Be honest with your co-worker about how you feel. You might find that talking about it is easier than you think.

You might be asked, or expected, to take on more work to make up for the absence of your co-worker. Discuss this with your supervisor if you think it could become a problem. Otherwise, you might begin to resent your co-worker. This will be an important part in overcoming the uneasiness you might feel in your co-worker’s presence.

Remember to take care of yourself. If you are close in age to your co-worker, or if you are very fond of them, you may find that this experience creates anxiety for you. Cancer often reminds us of our own mortality. You might notice feelings somewhat like those of the person who has cancer: disbelief, sadness, uncertainty, anger, sleeplessness, and fears about your own health. If this is the case, you may want to get support for yourself from a mental health professional or a local support group. If your company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), you can contact a counselor that way. You can also use other sources of counseling, such as your health insurance or religious support services.

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