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What to do when a coworker has cancer

Figuring out what to say—or what not to say—can feel daunting.

What to do when a coworker has cancer
[Source photos: studioportosabbia/iStock; SvetaZi/IStock]
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Christine Egan was always the healthy one in her friend group—until she wasn’t. The Long Island-based mother of three and marketing director ran half-marathons and went to great lengths to keep herself and her family healthy. Then one day during a routine checkup, doctors found a lump in her breast. “I wasn’t the one who was supposed to get cancer,” says Egan, who wrote a book about her experience.

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It’s true that cancer doesn’t discriminate. But there’s one thing that all diagnoses have in common: “Having cancer changes your perspective on everything,” says Rachel Cannady, strategic director of cancer caregiver support with American Cancer Society in Atlanta.

On top of worrying about the disease itself, there’s often also anxiety that creeps in about work, says Cannady. Those with cancer may question their ability to do their job, experience fear over their job security, and worry about how coworkers will react.

For their coworkers, figuring out how to be supportive—but not intrusive—can also feel stressful. In 2019, about 1.8 million people were diagnosed with cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. That means there’s a strong chance that someone you work with has, or will have, cancer in the future.

Here are some concrete tips for how to offer your support:

What to do

The first thing to do upon learning a coworker has cancer—or any medical diagnosis—is to give them privacy. Often, it can be extremely difficult for that person to accept the news personally, let alone inform managers and coworkers.

Andrew Graff, CEO of Allen & Gerritsen advertising agency, says he learned that someone he managed had cancer through a text message received at 10 p.m. one evening. “I vividly remember reading the words ‘stunned’ and ‘shocked,'” he says. If you do learn about someone’s cancer diagnosis, it’s important to let them take the lead with regard to how the information will be shared.

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When Egan was going through cancer treatment, she was very private about it. She started a blog where she wrote about her experience so that people could just read it, and she wouldn’t have to explain. “So many people say the wrong thing,” she says. “If there was ever a time when I needed to be completely positive and focused on getting better, it was then—and if that meant not sharing details of my diagnosis or treatment, then I needed to do that.”

While she avoided talking about cancer at work, Egan says her coworkers showed their support in meaningful ways. One of the best things people did was bring her family dinner and offer to take her kids to karate or dance class. “It gave us a way to maintain our normal lives with a little bit of ease,” she says.

Kate-Madonna Hindes, a multiple-time cancer survivor and public relations consultant, says little acts of kindness—like leaving a thoughtful card on their desk—can go a long way. When she was going through cancer treatment, a coworker put her favorite coffee creamer in the communal fridge with a kind note. “It made my day and lifted my spirit,” she says.

Sometimes companies may show collective support for an employee by sending flowers or another gift. One company, called Beyond Words Co. offers care packages designed specifically to comfort a person through cancer diagnosis and treatment. Furniture company Room & Board recently worked with Beyond Words to send out boxes to several employees going through serious illnesses that included items such as ginger mints (to help with nausea and dry mouth from treatments), salves and balms (to ease dry skin), cozy socks, and herbal tea. “We’ve heard from our staff members that they thought it was a thoughtful, touching gift,” says Skye Seesz, wellness manager for Room & Board.

What not to do

When she was first diagnosed, Egan was horrified that many people’s first reaction was to tell her a terrible story about someone else they knew who had cancer. Equally as difficult to deal with were endless comments like “I’m sorry,” or “I feel so bad for your kids,” she says. “It was gut-wrenching for me to have to come up with words to answer those.”

Even coworkers with the best intentions can come off negatively in these emotional situations. One of the worst things Hindes experienced was when a well-meaning coworker tried to host a fundraiser for her and got frustrated when Hindes couldn’t be at the event, because she had surgery scheduled that day. “I had tremendous guilt that she was doing a lot of work to help, but she didn’t clear dates with me,” Hindes says. That’s why it’s key to let the individual who has cancer to show or tell you exactly what they need. “Everyone handles cancer differently,” says Hindes, “It’s important to see the human in the disease.”

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Graff found the same to be true when he managed an employee with cancer. Every person is different, so focus on individual ways to support that person, as well as his or her family, he advises. No act is too small: Simply calling to check in and ask how they are doing can be meaningful. Managers can do this while still being practical about the professional side of things, too, Graff adds. When the time is right, create a transition plan to help that individual ease back into their role, and find some sense of normalcy again. “Your actions say a lot about your leadership and the workplace culture you’re creating,” says Graff.

A legal perspective

Employee health information is on a need-to-know basis, says Farrah Fielder, an employment lawyer and executive vice president of HR company Engage PEO, so in general, an employer should never be involved in sharing an employee’s medical condition. Again, this is where following the person’s lead comes into play. “Sometimes employees really want their colleagues to know, while others don’t want their [cancer diagnosis] shared,” says Fielder. That’s why it’s important for employers to specifically ask the employee what they would prefer.

One thing Fielder says she’s seen employees at other companies do is create a sick bank in support of that person, through which other coworkers can donate their unused vacation or sick days to a “bank” that can be used by the person undergoing cancer treatment. This way, they can still be paid if they need to take extra time off—a nice solution as long as they are comfortable with the arrangement, Fielder says.

For those in jobs outside of a traditional office, it can be trickier. If a person qualifies for medical leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act, their job may be held for a specific period of time, says Fielder, but there may be situations where there becomes no place for that employee when they return, or that they are unable to meet the demands of their job following a serious medical diagnosis. Currently, there are no federal legal requirements for paid sick leave, says Fielder.

If there’s one takeaway from the stories about individuals going through cancer in the workplace, it’s this: Don’t make it all about the illness. “While cancer is a stressful and frightening event, I found my best moments were not in discussing my disease,” says Hindes, “but those I spent with people that allowed me to break free of what was going on.”