When Someone You Work With Has Cancer

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What supervisors can do

What should I expect when an employee is diagnosed with cancer?

Everyone handles an experience like cancer in their own way, depending on their personal coping style and the nature of their personal situation. What’s true for one person may not be true for another. When dealing with an employee with cancer, keep these facts in mind:

  • A diagnosis of cancer is not a death sentence. Today’s treatments mean that many people are cured and lead valuable, productive lives for many years after diagnosis. Do not assume that a cancer diagnosis will end someone’s career. In fact, in some cases people become energized to be more productive and effective after facing cancer.
  • Many people can work their normal schedules while getting cancer treatment. On the other hand, some people may need more flexible schedules and extra time off. Some people look like they are functioning quite well even when they are having a difficult time, so don’t assume that requests for more time off are not legitimate. Have your employee work with the company’s Human Resources department to set up sick time or Family and Medical Leave (FMLA), if these are available in your workplace and the employee qualifies.

How do I set the tone in the workplace when an employee has cancer?

Your employees will follow your lead, so it’s important to learn the facts and be available to answer questions and concerns that other employees may have. But be sure to not violate confidences.

It’s critical to keep the lines of communication open at all times. Allow the employee with cancer time to talk about it. If there’s a problem with their work, don’t ignore it. Talk about it constructively and try to offer solutions.

Above all, don’t treat the employee with cancer differently than you treat other workers unless there’s a clear medical reason to do so, or the employee has asked for special accommodations.

What should I keep in mind when an employee is first diagnosed?

In some ways this is the hardest time for everyone. The surprise and shock following a diagnosis and the uncertainty about what to expect can make it hard for you, for the person with cancer, and for other employees, too.

During this time, it’s important to focus on supporting your employee and organizing ways to get work done, rather than focusing on the employee’s medical situation. Most likely, the person won’t know yet what the course of treatment will be and what time and schedule demands it will make.

Assure your employee that you will make reasonable accommodations so that they are able to keep working. If you can, let your employee know that your door is always open if they have concerns to address with you.

If for any reason you feel that you won’t be able to offer a listening ear, you can show your care and concern by helping to connect your employee to other sources of support, such as the employee assistance program or a local cancer support group.

Refresh your knowledge about your company’s policies concerning medical conditions and leave policies, including the Americans with Disabilities Act. Let the employee know about these policies, too. Your human resources department may be able to help. For more information about disability laws and special leave, please see our documents called Americans With Disabilities Act: Information for People Facing Cancer and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

What are the guidelines on confidentiality?

Keeping your employee’s confidential information private is very important. Ask your employee if there are people they feel comfortable with knowing the diagnosis, and if it would be helpful for you as a manager to tell them the news. Respect the person’s wishes; never tell anyone without permission, even if you think the employee will not mind. Always speak with your employee in a private area.

Take your cues from your employee. Ask questions, but be prepared to pull back if they seem reluctant to talk. Ask what you can do to help, and be sure the employee knows that you respect the privacy of their medical information.

When treatment begins, what should I expect?

Cancer is treated in many different ways. In-hospital treatment may mean the person has to take extended time off from work. Outpatient treatment may mean little or no change in the person’s workload, or it may mean that work hours or duties need to be reduced.

Sometimes an employee won’t know what’s possible until after treatment has started. The person’s capacity to work will depend on the type of treatment, their response to the treatment, and the amount of support and help the employee has at home. Be as flexible as possible. Decide together, and check in every now and then, to be sure you both agree on limits and have realistic expectations.

As treatment progresses, the person’s ability to handle various assignments or projects may change—for better or for worse. Don’t withhold challenging assignments because you think it will be too much of a strain. Ask the employee before holding back or taking away tough assignments.

What if the employee isn’t talking about what’s going on?

Don’t assume that because the employee is not complaining, treatment is not an issue. They may be “keeping a stiff upper lip.” Offer encouragement and appreciation for the way they are handling things.

Don’t be afraid to ask how the person is feeling, but remember to take your cues from the employee. If the employee doesn’t want to talk about it, that must be respected.

Are there steps I can take to make it easier for my employee facing cancer?

The following ideas might help you make things easier for an employee who is dealing with cancer. Different work settings may require other approaches, but the overriding principle is to ask and keep up with what’s going on.

  • Allow for flexible work hours, work from home, job sharing, and/or time off to keep treatment appointments.
  • Arrange for a nearby parking space for the employee.
  • Give the employee permission to rest when needed. Cancer treatment can reduce a person’s energy level.
  • If needed, teach other employees how to do parts of the person’s job. Sometimes the person with cancer can be the one to teach their colleagues.
  • Rearrange the workload so absences aren’t too disruptive.
  • Ask if the employee would be willing to let others do some of their work during absences.
  • Let the employee make decisions over which they have control. People with cancer often feel a loss of control over many aspects of life. Making decisions, even simple choices, helps contribute to an overall feeling of being in control.

How should I deal with other employees?

Keep the lines of communication open. Don’t talk to others about the person’s medical condition. This information is confidential. Do talk to other employees about work-related situations. How are the others managing to get the work done? Are they under extra stress? Are there steps that you as a manager can take to make it easier for them to cope with the situation? Focus on helping co-workers address their concerns rather than talking about the person with cancer.


Last Medical Review: 05/21/2012
Last Revised: 03/03/2014