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Do you know what to say?

Yes, you know what to do and not do.. but how about what to say to a coworker with cancer?

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Wanting To Help Is Natural; Knowing How Is Difficult

When a coworker is diagnosed with cancer, your first reaction is probably one of helplessness. Then you wonder, "What can I do to help?"

We posed that question to our panel of experts--two of whom are also working cancer survivors. It includes:

  • Margaret Backman, PhD, a New York City psychologist who treats patients with emotional issues associated with cancer
  • Michael Feuerstein, PhD, MPH, a professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. He is a 9-year cancer survivor, diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He wrote "The Cancer Survivors' Guide" (Marlowe & Co., 2006), with Patricia Findley, DrPH.
  • Lori Hope, a journalist and lung cancer survivor in Oakland, CA. Her revised and expanded version of "Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You To Know," was published in 2011 by Celestial Arts.
  • Diane Morrison, a licensed clinical social worker and manager of clinical social work at the City of Hope National Medical Center, Duarte, CA.

Preparation For Deciding What To Do

How you help a coworker, and what you offer to do for that colleague, will depend on how close the relationship is. If you're colleagues who have worked together for years and become friends, that's a different bond, of course, than you have with someone you have only a professional relationship with.

What To Do

  • Go beyond the usual "Let me know if I can do anything." As well-meaning as that offer is, the usual response is simply "Ok" followed by no request. And even if the coworker needs something, this means they have to come up with the request and figure out if you are agreeable. It's much better to offer your plan for helping. Something like: "I can fill you in on office meetings every Friday during my lunch hour" or: "I can drop off the post office mail every Monday, if you wish."
  • Offer to reduce the work strain--even if the co-worker is still off work for treatment. The key here is to ask--and get--permission. You might ask: "Is there a special customer you are worried about? May I call him for you, to let him know he's still in good hands?" Or: "Is there something on your desk that's undone that is bothering you, and could I tackle that for you?" Or you could ask: "What work project is stressing you the most right now? Let's plan how I could help you reduce that stress." If the colleague will be out of work for an extended time, you might offer to forward emails, deleting the junk mail first. Once you start helping, it may become easier for the survivor to ask for work-related help.
  • Consider gift baskets. What goes in it, of course, depends on your relationship with your colleague. You could include work-related gadgets such as calculators or software--something to help your colleague think about, and look forward to, returning to work. Or you could go the comfort route, including comfortable slippers and a movie or two--maybe a work-related flick. Try "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" if the business is stock brokering, "The Money Pit'' if you are realtors, or "The Devil Wears Prada" if publishing is your business. Social or online media? "The Social Network."
  • Never underestimate the power of a simple greeting card. When Hope surveyed cancer survivors for her updated book, women in particular said they appreciated greeting cards. A simple "We miss you" goes a long way to lifting spirits, she finds. The cards don't have to be syrupy sweet. The survivors said they loved funny cards. It makes sense: a good laugh can help lighten the moment.
  • Offer to take over a routine task. This could be a weekly errand--work-related or not--that needs to be done, such as a work report, laundry or dry cleaning or other chores.
  • Offer to help find resources that are helpful. If you are the office ''research" maven, this could be a natural for you. Offer to help your colleague find the need of the moment--that could be a hospital bed for home, the name of a doctor for a second opinion, or leads for a temporary live-in babysitter.
  • Offer to take a walk with the survivor. Whether the colleague accepts or not depends, of course, on their energy level and whether he or she is in shape to get physical activity. But it's helpful to offer, as the activity puts the focus back on ''normal."

What Not To Do

  • Do not drop in. This applies not only to the coworker's home but to the hospital, even if you hear he is doing well. Calling or texting ahead only takes a second.
  • Do not visit your coworker if you are sick--or getting sick. If you have a tickle in the throat or a sniffle, and are trying to decide if it's allergies or a cold, stay home. While many people trudge to work with a cold, a cold is a big deal for some cancer patients. 
  • Do not deliver food without first asking--and letting them know what exactly it is. Taking a meatloaf to a household of vegetarians isn't helpful. Neither is taking a fancy nut mix to the hospital when your coworker is on a bland diet. Try this: "I'm making chili. May I bring over a pot for you?"
  • Do not engage in long phone calls--no matter how much you think your colleague loves to hear your reports about work. Fatigue is common among survivors even after treatment, so give your coworker a chance to rest and heal.
  • Do not be so afraid of doing the wrong thing that you do nothing--especially when you are eager to help your colleague. Diffuse your stress by admitting your awkwardness. Try saying: "I don't know if this is the right thing to do, but…." You'll soon find out.