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People often find it difficult to talk to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. They want to help but may not be sure what to say.
See some real examples of how people spoke about their cancer diagnosis with colleagues and clients.
Everyone is different in how they communicate with others about serious life events. Some people find it easy to talk about their thoughts and feelings, while others are more private. Cultural differences matter too. Some languages don’t even have a word for cancer. In some communities it is taboo – something people don’t think they should mention.
People may be embarrassed to discuss the physical details of their cancer, especially if a person of the opposite gender is present. People with caring responsibilities may not recognise themselves as a carer or they may not feel comfortable talking about their personal life in the workplace.
Communication about cancer can be helpful to everyone concerned and there are a number of things you can do to make conversations easier.
Communication is a very individual matter and you will need to consider your response in a given situation. Remember, everyone is different and what is appropriate for one person won’t be helpful for someone else.
Try not to:
As soon as you become aware that an employee has been diagnosed with cancer, or that they are caring for someone with cancer, encourage them to meet with their line manager, HR manager or occupational health provider as appropriate. Sometimes it can be helpful for individuals to have more than one point of contact. Someone other than their line manager can be seen as more neutral or easier to relate to about health where gender or age is an issue. This gives them the opportunity to talk confidentially about their situation and what impact it might have on their work.
Some employees may prefer to look for help themselves and access existing policies without specifically revealing a cancer diagnosis. For others, an informal initial conversation may be preferable.
Your employee may wish to have a third party present at this or future meetings, such as a colleague, family member, friend, or trade union representative. Communication and note taking should be handled sensitively and confidentiality should be assured at all times.
If they can, let your employee take the lead by telling you what has happened. If you need to move the conversation on a bit, you could try asking about:
It would be helpful if you also offer information about:
If your organisation has access to a welfare rights officer or occupational health adviser, it could help to involve them at an early stage if the employee wants their help.
Make sure you end the meeting with an assurance that your employee’s work is valued and that your door is always open if they need your assistance. Agree how you will keep the lines of communication open and set a date for the next meeting.
It’s important to agree a communication plan with your employee early on. This can include what will and won’t be mentioned, who will be told and who will do the telling.
Your employee may not wish to tell others they are affected by cancer. This must be your employee’s decision. However, colleagues may be more understanding about absences and other changes in work arrangements if they know what is happening.
If your employee agrees that others should know, ask them:
When sharing information, concentrate on the impact your employee’s illness may have on people and projects at work. Avoid personal details. Use positive language, but be honest about what to expect. Don’t dramatise, and discuss with your team about how to best approach and talk with their colleague.
You can also invite staff to speak to you or another manager if they are having practical problems with the situation or if they are feeling distressed. If you think it’s appropriate, you can point them towards services like the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00, which can provide more support.
We have more information about how to talk to someone with cancer|, and you can order our free booklet, Lost for words – how to talk to someone with cancer at be.macmillan.org.uk|
Content last reviewed: 1 May 2011
Next planned review: 2013
For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just want someone to talk to, ask Macmillan.
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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