When a coworker is diagnosed with cancer, most people simply don’t know what to say. Speechless is the usual reaction.
What will you say? What 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 of as a natural and helpful question or comment may not be helpful at all — and may actually be hurtful.
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 disbelief.
Here, suggestions on how to put your concern into words.
“I am sorry this is happening to you.” Or “It’s unfair this is happening to you.”
These phrases are simple, heartfelt and to the point.
“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 that if they feel like talking, you’re a willing audience. This may be enough of an exchange for now, especially if the diagnosis is new. Always let the coworker with cancer guide the discussion and decide how much they want to talk about their cancer.
“Don’t worry about work.”
Only say this, of course, if you are willing to pitch in or if you are the person’s boss and can assure them not to worry. In a 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 something like “Is chemo making you nauseous?” allows the colleague to open up and tell you about their challenges or simply give a brief answer and move on if they don’t feeling like sharing.
“May I email you?”
Some people view emails and texts as cold, but reaching out this way may offer some benefits as you continue to communicate with a coworker who has cancer. That’s especially true if the person is taking time off work to undergo treatment. Email is not as intrusive as a telephone call or voicemail. It doesn’t beg for an immediate response the way a call or text seems to do. It allows a coworker to answer you when their workload or mood permits. The same straightforward comments — that you are thinking about them and available to help with the workload — are generally a good approach.
“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 they are still an important member of the team. Just as importantly, they can take a break from thinking about their cancer.
What Not to Say
The list of questions and comments that many people think are helpful — but actually aren’t — is surprising to some. 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 you 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 can relate to your coworker. But your newly diagnosed colleague is likely to hear the part about being in the hospital for months. They may also feel like you are more interested in talking about your brother than in focusing on them and their cancer.
“I know this will turn out OK.”
That sounds so upbeat — to you. But to the cancer patient, it can sound dismissive of all the things they’re worried about. Of course they’ve had the thought: “What if it doesn’t turn out all right?” So your saying it will turn out fine negates their anxiety about the outcome. Instead of the blanket reassurance, try: “Whatever happens, I am here for you” — but only if you will be.
“The same thing happened to my neighbor, and it worked out fine.”
Suppose a coworker who has lost their 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 their hair, and hated it when it first returned, but now it’s very cute.” You may think it’s a helpful story, but it takes the focus off your colleague’s angst. What they may prefer is for you to join them in that awful moment of time and just commiserate. You need to focus on their challenge, and keep your neighbor out of it.
“Did you drink?” Or “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 many 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 — neither of which is helpful to them.
Don’t let talk about the cancer dominate every conversation.
Remember that your coworker probably wants to give the “cancer talk” a rest, at least now and then; so 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 them feel as though they’re still an important team member at work.
Once their treatment is finished, realize that your coworker may want to talk about the experience less and less. So allow them to start discussions about it — if they want. Many people with cancer go back to work hoping for this kind of support and camaraderie — and a return to normal.