When Someone You Work With Has Cancer

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What to expect

Will the person with cancer have physical changes?

There are some common physical changes shared by many cancer patients. The cancer itself causes some of these changes, and others are the result of side effects of cancer treatment. Keep in mind that each cancer journey is different. Your co-worker may or may not have any of the following:

  • Hair loss, including eyebrows and eyelashes
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Appetite loss or increase
  • Changes in how things taste or smell
  • Extreme tiredness called fatigue (more information follows)
  • Pale skin and lips, or changes in skin color
  • Disfigurement (for example, the loss of a limb or a breast after cancer surgery)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Problems with sleep
  • Poor concentration

For many cancer patients, the hardest side effect to deal with is fatigue. People report that fatigue can be overwhelming, and they are surprised at how tired they can feel long after treatment ends. It can take a long time to heal after surgery, and people can have fatigue for months after an operation. Chemotherapy can involve many weeks of strong medicines that worsen fatigue as the body heals. People getting radiation treatment often also report extreme fatigue. Your co-worker may be experiencing stress and emotional concerns too, which add to exhaustion. Fatigue can go on for months after treatment is over.

How will my co-worker’s emotions be affected?

Each person reacts in their own way to cancer and its treatment. It’s normal to feel sad and grieve over the changes that a cancer diagnosis brings. The person’s mood and emotions can change from day to day, even from hour to hour. This is normal. A person with cancer may go through any or all of the following emotions and thoughts:

  • Uncertainty
  • Anger
  • A sense of lack of control
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Frustration
  • Mood swings
  • Much stronger and more intense feelings
  • A sense of being disconnected or isolated from others
  • Loneliness
  • Resentment
  • Grief

Over time, the person may discover some changes that are good:

  • A greater sense of resilience or strength
  • Peace, or a feeling of being at ease
  • A clearer idea of their priorities in life
  • More appreciation for their quality of life and the people they care about

Cancer can be unpredictable. Someone with cancer can feel good one day and terrible the next. Expect that your co-worker will have good days and bad days. Learning to live with uncertainty is part of learning to live with cancer, both for the patient and for the people around them.

There may be times when the uncertainty and the fear cause your co-worker to seem angry, depressed, or withdrawn. This is normal and is a part of the process of grieving what was lost to the cancer (things like health, energy, time). Most people are able to slowly adjust to the new reality in their lives and go forward. Some may need to have extra help from a support group or a mental health professional to learn to deal with the changes cancer has brought into their lives. For more on this, please see Anxiety, Fear, and Depression. You can read it online at www.cancer.org, or call us for a copy.

How do people cope with cancer?

People develop all kinds of coping styles during their lives. Some people are quite private, while others are more open and talk about their feelings. These coping styles help people manage difficult personal situations, although some styles work better than others.

Some people use humor and find it to be a relief from the serious nature of the illness. But some may become withdrawn and isolated from family and friends. A cancer diagnosis creates a lot of change. People often try to maintain as much control as they can in order to feel more secure. Some people become very angry or sad. They might be grieving the loss of their own healthy self-image, or the loss of control over their own lives.

Some people find it helps to simply be hopeful and do what they can to maintain that hope. Hope means different things to different people. And people can hope for many things while facing cancer.

You might assume that someone who is positive and optimistic must be denying the fact that they have cancer. If your co-worker seems upbeat and unaffected by having cancer, don’t assume they’re in denial. Making the most of every day may simply be their way of coping. As long as they are getting medical care, they are probably not in denial and their way of coping should be respected. For more information, see Coping With Cancer in Everyday Life.

How important is work to the co-worker with cancer?

Facing cancer often brings with it an increased sense of the importance of work in a person’s life. Work can boost self-worth and help the person focus on what they are able to do rather than on their illness. Work can be a safe haven away from the medical world and can help a person balance the feeling of being out of control. Work is also a source of stability because it has a routine and is familiar. And work provides contact with other people. Cancer can be isolating, and being around people can be a great comfort. It may be very important for your co-worker to be at work as much as possible and to be as productive as possible. Financial and insurance issues may also affect the decision to work during treatment.

How can cancer affect a person’s financial situation?

Cancer can cause money problems. The person may lose pay by being absent from work during and just after treatment. The worker’s pay may drop if shorter hours are worked while the employee is getting treatment or is not feeling well. Employees may also need to pay more of their insurance premium if they work fewer hours or if they take time off for treatment. In some cases, health coverage may be stopped or decreased if they go to a part-time schedule. A lot depends on your workplace policies. It’s important for the employee with cancer to understand in advance how schedule changes affect their insurance, salary, and other benefits.

Frequent medical visits can also be a financial drain because of prescription costs and insurance co-payments (the part of treatment that insurance doesn’t pay). These co-payments can reach burdensome amounts. There are also parking fees, gasoline, and the full costs of other services and equipment not covered by insurance. The costs can add up very quickly.


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