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Phrases and Questions That Come Naturally May Be Hurtful, Not Helpful

When a coworker is diagnosed with cancer, most people simply don’t know what to say.

Speechless is the usual reaction.

What will you--should you--say? Your thoughts race as you rehearse something heartfelt.

If it's the first time you've had a coworker diagnosed with cancer, it's probably more difficult.

Even worse, what you may think is a natural and helpful question or comment may not be helpful at all--and may be hurtful, according to our expert panel.

That expert panel includes cancer survivors who have heard all the right stuff from their coworkers, and plenty of distressing comments as well.

Our panel:

  • 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 Say

First, assess how close you are to the coworker. 

What you say to a colleague you've spent coffee breaks and lunches with for years is bound to be different than what you say to a coworker with whom you wait for the elevator and exchange pleasantries.

Remember, too, that everyone is different--each person handles the diagnosis and treatment differently. While there are general tips about what to say and not say, it's also important to take cues from your colleague. Tune in, and focus on their reactions when you are talking. If they seem reluctant to talk, respect that desire.

What to Say

Whatever the strength of the bond, it's natural to feel awkward, sad, fearful, angry, and be in disbelief.

Here, suggestions on how to put your concern into words. 

"I am sorry this is happening to you."

This is simple and heartfelt. If your colleague is a man, you might skip the word sorry, as some men associate the word with pity. Instead: "It's unfair this is happening to you."

"I don't know what to say or how to say it, but I do want you to know I am here for you."

This acknowledges your awkwardness and lets your coworker know if she feels like talking, you're a willing audience. This may be enough of an exchange for now, especially since the diagnosis is new. Always let the coworker with cancer guide the discussion and decide how much to talk about the cancer.

"Don't worry about work."

Only say this, of course, if you are willing to pitch in or if you are her boss and can assure her not to worry. In Hope's survey of more than 600 survivors, this comment was valued greatly by working cancer patients. 

"I am thinking of you."

Just saying that lets the coworker know you care.

"How are you feeling today?"

Asking that way--instead of "Is your chemo making your hair fall out?" allows the colleague to open up and tell you about her challenges or simply give a brief answer and move on, if she don't feeling like sharing. 

"May I email you?"

Often, people view emails and texts as cold, but it may offer some benefits as you continue to communicate with a coworker with cancer. That's especially true if they are off work for treatment. Email is not as intrusive as a voicemail or telephone call. It doesn't beg an immediate response, as a text seems to do. It allows a coworker to answer you when her workload or mood permit. The same straightforward comments--that you are thinking about them and trying to help with the workload--should work fine.

"Wasn’t that a productive meeting?"

Remembering to talk about ''normal'' work activities is important. That way, cancer talk doesn't dominate every conversation. Your coworker will feel like she is still an important member of the team. Just as importantly, she can take a break from thinking about the cancer.

What Not to Say

The list of questions and comments that many people think is helpful--but isn't--is surprising to many people. Here, what the experts suggest not saying to a colleague with cancer: 

"I know how you feel."

Even if you were diagnosed with the same kind of cancer, you can't know how the coworker feels. There are just too many variables. The patient may be thinking, rightfully, "How on earth can he know what I am going through?"

"My brother had this kind of cancer and he was in the hospital for months."

You may think you are showing that you relate to the coworker with cancer. The colleague newly diagnosed, however, is likely to hear the part about being in the hospital for months--not a cheery thought! The colleague may also feel like you are more interested in talking about your brother than in focusing on her--and her cancer. 

"I know this will turn out OK."

That sounds so upbeat--to you. But to the cancer patient, it sounds dismissive of all the things she is worried about. Because of course she has thought: "What if it doesn't turn out all right?" Saying it will turn out fine dismisses her anxiety about the outcome as trivial. Instead of the blanket reassurance, try: " Whatever happens, I am here for you"--only if you will be.

"The same thing happened to my neighbor, and it worked out fine."

Suppose a coworker who has lost her hair after chemo is a little down about the stubble that is growing out. Often, people will point out someone else who went through it. As in: "My neighbor lost her hair, and hated it when it first returned, but now it's very cute." Nice story, you think, but it takes the focus off the colleague's angst. What she really may want is for you to join her in that awful moment of time and just commiserate--or make suggestions about what she can do to encourage the growth, if you know. You need to focus on her challenge, and keep the neighbor out of it.

"Did you drink?" "Do you smoke?"

Yes, the risk of liver cancer (and other cancers) is linked with excess alcohol intake. Lung cancer is tied with smoking, although nonsmokers get it, too. Yes, it's natural to wonder. Shelve it as an unanswered question. If the person did smoke or drink, what value is there in knowing, other than satisfying your curiosity? Answering will only bring them down and in some cases make them feel guilty--not helpful to recovery.

Don't let talk about the cancer dominate every conversation.

Remember your coworker no doubt wants to give the ''cancer talk'' a rest, at least now and then. Be sure to focus on work topics, too. Saying something as simple as "Wasn't that a productive work meeting?" can go a long way to helping your coworker feel like things are getting back to normal. It can also make her feel that she is still an important team member at work.

Once treatment is finished, realize your coworker may want to talk about the experience less and less. So allow her to start discussions about cancer. Instead, you can resume conversations that took place before the diagnosis. Many people with cancer go back to work hoping for this kind of support and camaraderie--and a return to normal.