Colleagues and Cancer: Do's and Don’ts of Being a Supportive Coworker

Know there is certain language to say and not say

Chances are, you have (or will have) a colleague who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. You might be starting your day in a team meeting or find yourself in the middle of presenting a campaign to a client, and suddenly you notice a colleague is not fully themselves. What do you do in those situations; more importantly what do you say?

This year the American Cancer Society projects there will be 281,550 new cases and in general, 1 in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer over the span of their lives.

Many well-meaning people who are taken aback and don’t know what to say during the “I have cancer” conversation at work end up saying something unintentionally thoughtless. Don’t let that be you! Turn this unfortunate situation into an opportunity to give your colleague the gift of your care and support.

Cancer conversations can be triggering, especially if you know someone who has suffered from or even succumbed to cancer. Recognize that this moment is not about you.

Becoming highly emotional and inwardly focused often leaves your colleague feeling as though they need to support you and take care of your emotional needs instead of the other way around. This can be exhausting. If your colleague ends up comforting you about their prognosis, something likely went very wrong in the conversation.

Below is a translation of what is heard or understood when the following phrases are uttered as well as alternate approaches to take.

Promote positivity without judgement

When you say “stay positive,” your colleague is thinking: Plenty of glass-half-full people are diagnosed every day. Are my cancer vibes ruining your otherwise sunny aura?

How you might respond instead: Take the route of setting an intention, or desired outcome, from the interaction with your colleague. How do you want them to feel during and after the conversation? In my experience, the most positive conversations I had with colleagues gave me the space to feel heard, accepted and supported—without judgment of my feelings.

Avoid comparing with other cancer cases

When you say “my Aunt Gladys had breast cancer 10 years ago, and she’s doing great! You’ll be fine,” your colleague is thinking: I’m genuinely happy to hear that Aunt Gladys recovered nicely, but that won’t prevent my recurrence. One in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, so it’s not exactly breaking news that you know others similarly afflicted. Not all breast cancers are the same. I’m scared and feeling alone.

How you might respond instead: Be open, without assumption, about what your colleague might want or need. Ask what would be helpful and be prepared to support them once they share.

Your colleague might just want a sense of normalcy. This could mean dialing back workload, needing a flexible schedule to accommodate treatment or even taking on a new challenge or assignment. All can be an escape from cancer-land. I attended a work happy hour after a much-needed blood transfusion. To each his (or her) own.

Steer clear of dismissive language

When you say “oh, at least it’s only breast cancer” or “at least you caught it early,” your colleague is thinking: this feels dismissive and minimizing of my experience. No cancer is the “good” kind. Over 40,000 women die annually from breast cancer—what if I’m one of them?

I’m facing deforming surgery and months of treatment that may weaken my heart, leave permanent scars, trigger early menopause … the list of side effects and permanent impacts goes on. I will always live in fear that my cancer will return, even if it’s early stage.

How you might respond instead: Think of yourself as a care partner for this person, albeit in the work environment. Follow your colleague’s lead. If they want to talk, listen actively without advice, “I know someone who” stories or trying to fix anything. It’s okay to laugh with your colleague, even if their humor feels a bit maudlin. Humor can be a coping mechanism and a powerful form of connection.

Take a breath and process the situation

When you say: “But you’re so healthy/young/fit!” or “does it run in your family?,” Your colleague is thinking: These are all ill-informed stereotypes. Cancer doesn’t discriminate.

I was a healthy, fit yogi and mother of two in my mid-thirties when I was diagnosed. These “detective questions” insinuate that I brought about the cancer myself, or that I should have seen this one coming.

How you might respond instead: Nothing at all. Silence is powerful.

Pausing instead of rushing down a well-trodden conversation path can give space for your colleague to share more or to take the conversation in another direction. Taking a breath will give you a moment to process the weight of the moment being shared and allow you to be thoughtful about what you’d really like to communicate.

Most importantly, be authentic. There is no script for these moments. Sometimes the most beautiful human experiences arise from our darkest moments.

And give your Aunt Gladys a big hug next time you see her.