How to talk about cancer at work

If your employee has been diagnosed with cancer, they or you may not know how to approach the subject. However, to be able to support them, it’s important to communicate openly.

You should encourage them to meet with their line or HR manager. During initial conversations, it’s important to tell your employee that all information will be dealt with sensitively and confidentially. It will help discuss their situation and what impact it may have on their work.

To discuss sensitive matter, you’ll need to find a private place to talk. It may help to:

  • let your employee take the lead in the conversation
  • ask them how they’re feeling
  • ask how much time off they need for appointments
  • discuss what will or won’t be told to their colleagues.

As an employer you should offer information about:

  • the options for time off
  • policies on flexible working
  • their rights to be protected against discrimination
  • services your organisation offers to help them.

Line-managers play an essential part in supporting the employee on their return to work. They can make work adjustments for them and adapt their workload.

Talking to your employee

People can find it difficult to talk to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. They often want to help but may not be sure what to say.

You may find you have to talk about difficult things with your employee, but it’s important to keep communication open. Not talking will make things harder to deal with. In this section, there are tips on having the first conversations, communicating sensitively and talking to other colleagues.

The person who has cancer may struggle to talk too. 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.

Be aware that people may be embarrassed to discuss the physical details of their cancer, especially if a person of a different 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.

Talking about cancer is difficult at first, but it can be helpful for everyone concerned. There are a number of things you can do to make conversations easier.

Download the Looking after someone with cancer [PDF] - A practical guide for carers, by carers

First conversations

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.

Guidelines on sensitive communication

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 to:

  • choose a private place to talk and make sure you won’t be interrupted
  • be prepared for the meeting to overrun – let your employee set the pace
  • show you are listening – encourage conversation by nodding or with verbal cues like, ‘I see’ or ‘what happened next?’
  • show it’s okay to be upset by allowing your employee time express their emotions, and recover if necessary, while remaining calm yourself
  • show empathy with phrases like, ‘you sound very upset’
  • respond to humour but don’t initiate it – humour can be a helpful coping strategy for people going through a difficult time
  • adjourn the meeting if your employee becomes too distressed to continue.

Try not to:

  • be afraid of silence – it’s okay if it goes quiet for a bit
  • be too quick to offer advice
  • use clichés like, ‘things could be worse’ or ‘things will work out’
  • discount your employee’s feelings
  • share stories about other people you know who have cancer – this takes the focus away from your employee.

If you need to move the conversation on a bit, you could try asking about:

  • how they are feeling, emotionally and physically
  • whether they wish colleagues to be informed and what information should be shared
  • what sort of time off they might need for medical appointments and during treatment (they may not know at this point – it’s often a case of seeing how things go).

It would be helpful if you also offer information about:

  • the options for time off
  • organisational policies on flexible working, work adjustments and return-to-work after sick leave
  • their rights to be protected against discrimination, either because they have cancer or are caring for someone with cancer
  • any services your organisation provides to help them, for example, an employee assistance programme (EAP) that offers counselling.

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 communication open and set a date for the next meeting.

The importance of line managers

Line managers are important in the return-to work process for many reasons:

  • They are often the first contact point when the employee is unwell and doesn’t attend work.
  • They are responsible for the day-to-day management of the employee on their return.
  • They are key to work adjustments and implementation of work redesign initiatives.
  • They may be the first person called upon by the employee when they need to meet HR or an occupational health professional for advice about their condition and their return-to-work.
  • They influence the employee’s workload and therefore the level of pressure or demand. This will be an important factor if the employee is returning to work after some time away.
  • By being supportive, especially after a period of sickness absence, they can prevent additional stress for the employee.

Support for line managers

Occupational health and HR

Line managers should have easy access to colleagues in human resources and occupational health. They should be ready to give the information and support that line managers need. This may include guidance about the employee’s health condition, advice on the work adjustments needed, or information about the return-to-work process. Managers often value being available to discuss their concerns throughout the process with occupational health or HR teams.

Top 10 tips

Macmillan’s Top 10 tips for line managers [PDF]  are designed to help line managers support an employee from the point of diagnosis onwards. To order copies of these tips for your line managers, visit

E-learning module

Cancer in the workplace: managers is an online module that aims to give line managers the confidence and knowledge needed to deal with cancer at work. It covers key areas such as talking about cancer, confidentiality, rights and responsibilities, and supporting carers. You can complete it in one session, or over time. Visit our Learn Zone.

Telling colleagues

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:

  • if they want to break the news themselves
  • if someone else should do it, and whether they want to be present
  • how the news should be communicated, for example one-to-one or in a meeting
  • how much information should be shared and what should remain confidential.

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, which can provide more support.

Back to If you're an employer

Policies and resources

If one of your employees has cancer or is caring for someone affected by cancer, we have information to help you support them.

Managing cancer in the workplace

In the UK, over 700,000 people of working age are living with cancer. Managers play a fundamental role in supporting employees affected by cancer.

How cancer affects people

Your employee’s ability to work may change after a cancer diagnosis. To support them, it’s helpful to understand how treatment may affect them.

Time off for your employee

Some people with cancer will be able to continue to work, others will need time off. There are different options to manage absences.

Occupational health advice

Occupational health advisers can help employers assess whether a role needs to be adjusted in light of an employee’s health.

Supporting carers

Carers who need to look after a dependant are allowed to take emergency time off. They may also wish to request flexible working.

Legislation about work and cancer

In the UK, there are laws that protect employees with cancer from being treated unfairly in the workplace. This includes discrimination, harassment and victimisation.


Although many people survive cancer, your employee or the person they are caring for may die from their illness.