When a Co-worker Has Cancer

Roswell Park
Saturday, October 22, 2016 - 12:20pm

When a co-worker shares that they are battling cancer, it can be difficult to know what to say or how to act.

Matt Krueger, 40, and Mary Best, 24, are both cancer survivors who experienced both helpful and hurtful interactions with their co-workers and social circles while undergoing treatment. Simple actions and words can have a big impact, according to the survivors—from inquiring how a person is doing to avoiding making light of the situation.

Matt was diagnosed with testicular cancer two days prior to his 32nd birthday, but didn’t have the opportunity to tell his co-workers immediately. “I was diagnosed early in the afternoon, so I actually returned to the office to tell my boss,” he said. “He needed to know that I would be having surgery the next day and would miss work to recover.”

After three weeks, Matt returned to the office and his co-workers had not been informed of his diagnosis. What was difficult for Matt was not what was said, but rather, what was left unsaid. Initially, nobody inquired as to what was wrong, because management had instructed employees not to contact him or ask about the issue.

But according to Matt and Mary, there is a mid-ground between prying into a person’s medical condition and remaining totally silent.

Mary, who is a carcinoid cancer survivor, notes that most cancer patients don’t want to be treated like porcelain dolls. “When people know you’re dealing with cancer, they rightfully understand it’s not easy, but many people’s first reactions made me feel like they thought I was terminally ill,” she said. “Please treat me like a human being and ask about me and not just my illness.”

For most people undergoing treatment, what they want from their co-workers is fairly simple – to be treated like anyone else going through something difficult. For some, knowing what to say can be hard, but according to Matt, that leads some people to shy away from a person in treatment entirely to avoid that conundrum, which doesn’t help either.

Support and understanding are key, says Mary, but Matt advises that co-workers can skip the pep talks on beating cancer.

Matt noted that at one point, a co-worker inquired how his treatments were going and Matt responded honestly that they were awful. “He just nodded and told me he was sorry that I had to go through that. It was simple, but it showed he actually cared about my well-being,” said Matt. “I also appreciated that he didn’t try to give me a pep talk about how I would defeat cancer.”

There is no one-size-fits-all comment to say in this situation, but here are a few suggestions on what to say to a co-worker with cancer:

  • Simply ask how a person is feeling or doing.
  • Ask if there’s anything your co-worker needs or wants, as long as you are willing to follow through.
  • Remind them that you are happy to listen if they want to talk about the situation.
  • Tell your co-worker that you are sorry that they are facing this battle and that you are unsure of what to say or how to help, but that you are there for support. That honesty can go a long way.
  • Keep the discussion positive, by saying something like, “When you get through this, we are going to eat the biggest pizza we can find!”

While these suggestions come from survivors, remember that every person is different and so are their needs. Be respectful of their desires, whether or not they want to talk about the situation and do your best to gauge their reactions and proceed accordingly.