If a colleague has cancer

When a colleague has been diagnosed with cancer, people can react in different ways.

Some may have dealt with cancer before - perhaps they’ve had a family member who has had cancer. But others may not have dealt with cancer or any other serious illness before, and they may feel at a loss to know what to say or do. Some people may feel too embarrassed to say anything at all.

You may think it’s best to carry on as normal, as if nothing is wrong. But it’s quite natural to feel upset or worried if your co-worker has been diagnosed with cancer. It’s important to talk about your feelings, especially if it has a big impact on you at work.

Your colleague may have told you themselves that they have cancer. Or you may have been told by someone else. If your colleague tells you themselves, you could ask them how you can help and whether they’d like you to ask after their health, or if they would rather not talk about it.

You could ask who else knows about their situation, and if they want to keep it to only a few people or whether it’s general knowledge. Take the lead from them about how they want to handle the situation. There are some things that can generally help:

  • Don’t go quiet when your colleague walks into the room.
  • Respect your colleague’s wish for privacy and confidentiality.

Don’t overdo the sympathy. Your colleague may be trying to keep life as normal as possible where they can - too much sympathy may just remind them of the cancer. However, don’t avoid speaking to your colleague because you think they’ll be embarrassed talking about their cancer or because you’re embarrassed and don’t know what to say.

Remember to invite your colleague to any social arrangements or other events. They will appreciate the invitation even if they’re unable to come.

Keeping in touch can be very helpful. If your co-worker is going to be off sick for a while, find out the best way to keep in touch. This might be a regular phone call, text or visit, or maybe emails or using a social networking website. You can ask your colleague what they’d like to know about and how often they’d like to hear from you.

You may find it helpful to talk to your manager, other colleagues or people outside of work (if your colleague is happy for the information to be shared). Some workplaces have an employee assistance programme (EAP) or other type of support network to help employees affected by cancer or other illness. These are often available through the human resources department.

You may find it helpful to read our section on being there for someone with cancer. It looks at some of the difficulties people may have when talking about cancer and suggests ways of overcoming them.

We have information about talking to your family and friends. You may also wish to read our section on the benefits of talking.

Back to The impact cancer may have on work

Taking time off work

If cancer or its treatment prevent you from working, you may qualify for benefits that can provide some financial help.