When a coworker or employee has cancer

There is no question that cancer throws a wrench into any relationship. All of a sudden, there is a piece to the puzzle that wasn’t there before. All parties must quickly learn how to navigate the uncharted waters. When it is a friend, family member or loved one, many years of close interaction can help inform everyone involved how to move forward.

But what do you do when a coworker or employee is fighting a battle against cancer? Oftentimes we spend more than 40 hours each week with our coworkers. Even at the closest-knit offices, there is often a professional wall that doesn’t allow for the same kind of personal relationship we have with our loved ones.

If you’ve found out that a coworker or employee has cancer and you want to be a good member of their support team, here are a few ways to offer assistance and encouragement.

  • Don’t force anything. Everyone is on their own journey and will have their own preferences. Just because your friend with cancer wanted to talk about every step of their treatment doesn’t mean your office mate will. Be respectful and communicate about their needs and wants before jumping into any unwanted conversation or attention.
  • Be flexible. We fall into routines with our coworkers. That routine is likely going to change as your coworker goes through treatment. Be flexible and provide creative solutions like offering longer lead time on deadlines and scheduling meetings that fit their new schedule.
  • Offer to rearrange responsibilities. Check in to see how your coworker is feeling about their normal workload. You may decide to talk to your manager about rearranging the team’s responsibilities so everyone can complete their work with less stress.
  • Listen. One of the best things to do for a person is to simply be there and listen. Most people going through treatment have a whole support team of doctors, family members and loved ones telling them what they should and shouldn’t do, reading about the latest studies and suggesting new options. Be a sounding board and only give opinions and suggestions if asked.
  • Be normal. Someone in treatment has had their whole world flipped upside down. Their friends and family are likely very concerned and their life outside of work has changed dramatically. Provide a place where the person can feel like at least one part of their routine is somewhat normal.
  • Pay attention to the rest of the team. This is especially important if you are the boss or supervisor. A cancer diagnosis can affect everyone in a patient's circle and that includes their team members. Check in often to make sure everyone is feeling comfortable with their workloads and any other changes.