The Dos and Don’ts of Talking About Cancer at Work

by Kit Herrod on May 11, 2016 1:00:00 PM

The Dos and Don’ts of Talking About Cancer at Work by TINYpulseCancer enters the workplace every day. According to Cancer and Careers, approximately 1.66 million people will hear the words, You have cancer” each year, and 44% of these individuals will be of working age. When an employee shares the news that they are facing cancer either personally or as the caregiver for a loved one, its difficult to know what to say. However, its important you to know what to say — and what not say. Here are suggestions to ensure your conversations are easier and more productive as an executive leader or colleague. 


Things Your Employee Does Want to Hear

Employees understand that you can't change their current health status. However, they do want and need to know you care and are concerned about them and their well-being. Use the statements below to show your concern:

  • “If you need to talk, know I am always here.”
  • “I am sorry you are going through this.”
  • “You are a valued member of our team and we will work together to make this work.”
  • “Let’s check in with each other on a regular basis so we can address any needed changes. 


The Dos: What to Say

Talking With an Employee With Cancer

Your first goal is to assure your employee that you care about their well-being. Avoid specific questions about your employees illness, but you do need to clarify his or her ability to work.

  • “This is new territory for me and I am not sure how to respond. I would like to bring HR in to help us address your needs.”
  • “I’m not sure I understand what this means. What will you need from the company to assist you with your work?”
  • “How will your treatment affect your work?”


What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

Take comfort in knowing that most of us are unsure of what to say initially. You are likely to feel at a loss for the right words. Remember, your employee recognizes that words cannot change the situation and sharing your uncertainty reflects your humanity. Its OK to identify the need to consult with your HR department or even bring an HR professional into these discussions.   

  • “I’m not sure what to say. Please let me get more information and I will be back in touch with you.”
  • “The company and I will work with you to figure out solutions.”
  • “We care about you and are here to assist you.”


Express Your Concern

Its important to empathize with your employee but its also important to avoid pity.  

  • “I am sure this is a difficult situation for you.”
  • “I am sorry you are facing such a difficult situation.”


Address Work Issues

Its critically important for the employee, their colleagues, and the company that you understand how the employees illness and treatment may impact their ability to do the job. Do not make assumptions. Many employees fear losing their job as a result of their diagnosis. You can lessen their fears and address your own concerns through an honest discussion handled with care. Begin by assuring your employee that you will work as a team to find solutions.

  • “We will work as a team to handle this and we will do what we can to support you.”
  • “Which of your job responsibilities do you feel comfortable and capable of handling now?”
  • “Do you have suggestions as to what might make things more manageable for you?”
  • “We want you to be comfortable with the arrangements.”

Keep Communications Open

Your employees emotions and physical well-being are likely to change over the course of treatment. If you see a change in their job performance, address those changes directly.  

  • “How are the plans we made working for you?”
  • “Are there any changes you feel need to be made to our originals plan?”
  • “I know this is a difficult time. Please feel free to come to me if you feel the need for assistance with your workload.


The Donts: What Not to Say

Knowing what not to say is as important as knowing what to say. Here are examples of what not to say to an employee with cancer:


Listen, but Do Not Give Advice

You may be tempted to offer advice or refer them to a doctor, but its best to avoid doing so.


Don’t Try to Cheer Them Up

Your employee is facing a serious medical condition. Its natural to want to make your employee feel better. However, saying “Things will be OK” or “Everything always works out for the best” simply trivializes the employee’s feelings and may not be true. 


Respect Their Feelings

Your employee will feel a myriad of emotions. Respect these emotions. Its also important not to say that you understand how they feel. Unless you have faced cancer, you simply dont understand.


Avoid Judgments

Cancer treatment can change ones appearance. Dont assume that weight loss, the loss of hair, or the appearance of being tired will negatively impact work performance. Dont comment on any appearance changes — even a new wig — unless the employee asks you directly.


Don’t Share Stories

We all know someone who has been touched by cancer. Dont divert the attention away from your employee by sharing someone elses story. This minimizes what they have to say.


Let Silence Happen

Pauses in a conversation are natural. Dont rush to fill those pauses. Let your employee take the lead in directing the conversation.

These tips should enable you to communicate more effectively with an employee facing a cancer diagnosis. The more you know, the more appropriate and effective your response will be as an employer and as a colleague.



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This post was written by Kit Herrod

Kit Herrod is a marketing and public relations professional who has a passionate and committed interest in cancer research and helping those living with cancer to receive the support and education they want and need. She first became involved with cancer as a volunteer who provided practical and emotional support to patients and their families as they were undergoing a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. Kit served on the Board of Trustees for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She later joined Fred Hutch professionally first in the Development Department and subsequently as the Director of External Affairs. She is pleased to have recently joined the team at Cancer Pathways as the program Manager for When Cancer Comes to Work.

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