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Helping a co-worker with cancer

Relationships between people in the workplace can vary a lot. This can make it especially hard to know how to act or what to say when a co-worker has cancer. Some people may not want to talk about having cancer while at work. They may prefer to focus on their job tasks, rather than on cancer. The following information can help with some work-related issues, whether you don’t know the person very well or you have worked together for many years and become good friends.

The importance of work

You may find yourself wondering why your co-worker is still at work if they have cancer. First, know that you can’t “catch” cancer and so the co-worker is not causing any harm by continuing to work.

Many people with cancer find it very important to continue working as much as possible. While money and insurance issues may affect their decision to work during treatment, going to work can be a source of stability because it’s their usual routine and it’s familiar. This can help when they are feeling out of control in other ways. Work can boost feelings of self-worth and help people focus on what they can do rather than on their illness.

Work also provides contact with other people. Cancer can be isolating, and being around people can be a great comfort to someone during their cancer journey.

Privacy and confidentiality

It’s important to respect a co-worker’s personal information and choice to share a diagnosis of cancer or any other health concern.

If a co-worker tells you that they have cancer, don’t tell anyone else unless your co-worker says this is OK. Let them be the one to tell others. If someone else at work asks you about it, you can say something like, “It's not my place to discuss this, but I'm sure she will appreciate your concern. I’ll let her know you asked about her.”

It might feel awkward if you hear through the office grapevine that a co-worker has cancer. You could ask the person who told you if the information is public. If it’s not, it’s probably best not to say anything to the person with cancer. But if it’s public information, don’t ignore it. You might say to your co-worker, in a caring way, “I heard about your health concerns and I’m thinking about you.”

If you supervise someone with cancer

Employers have legal responsibilities to accommodate employees who have cancer. An employee’s illness can affect certain tasks and may mean that other employees need to share or increase their workload. This can lead to confusion, gossip or resentment in the workplace.

As a supervisor or boss, don’t assume that what an employee tells you is to be shared widely. Find out how much an employee with cancer would like to share or not share with co-workers. At the very least, co-workers may need to know that someone will be away from work or their work duties are being adjusted for health reasons. While it’s very important to respect the wishes of an employee with cancer, it’s also important to encourage open lines of communication between you and your other employees in terms of how any work issues will be managed. Encourage everyone to discuss their feelings and ideas about sharing the extra work. Talk about any other work issues related to the illness or absence of a co-worker.

If your place of work has a nurse, a doctor or an employee and family assistance program, make sure your employee knows about these sources of support.

How you can help a co-worker

It’s natural to want to help in some way. Practical help with everyday tasks can really help your co-worker and their caregivers, such as:

Create a driving schedule. Take turns driving your co-worker to and from appointments. Offer to drive family members to do grocery shopping or even offer to go pick up the groceries.

Make some meals. A group of you may want to make meals that the family can freeze and reheat. (Check first to see if cancer treatment has affected what your co-worker can eat, as well as the family’s likes and dislikes.)

Organize a helping day. Get together to clean up the yard, mow the lawn, rake leaves or plant flowers.

Set up a fundraiser. People often have a lot of extra expenses while having cancer treatment. This can be very stressful, especially if they can’t work or don’t have enough benefits. Donations given as gifts through a fundraising effort can make things easier for your co-worker and family.

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