A cancer diagnosis can be a life-altering event for patients and their families, but it also often puts a very personal matter front and center in a professional setting – the workplace. Cancer treatment advancements and access to high quality care in local communities means that some patients can continue to work during treatment. Others may need a modified schedule or need to take a break from work completely.
Conscientious, caring co-workers can help, but knowing what to say and do can be tricky. Effective support in the workplace can improve a patient’s cancer experience and outlook.
What to Expect
Cancer patients often experience emotional and physical changes – these commonly include increased anxiety, fear, depression, and fatigue. Supervisors and co-workers should expect these changes and make arrangements to support the patient and each other during the treatment process.
Remember that just as each member of your work team has unique skills and personalities, your cancer patient colleagues will have different reactions and needs. Learn and respect your colleague’s wishes related to privacy, communication, and support.
What to Say (and Not Say)
It’s always a challenge to know what to say to someone going through a difficult situation. The standard “Let me know if I can do anything” might be heartfelt, but it places the onus on the patient to follow up. Instead, it’s usually more helpful to offer specific support to your colleague. You might offer to update the co-worker on office happenings, assist on a special work project, take over a routine task, or even research resources to assist the patient. During brief conversations, focus on topics the patient enjoys discussing. Discussing work activities or other normal issues helps ensure that cancer isn’t the main topic of every discussion.
There are also some things co-workers should avoid telling a cancer patient:
- Don’t offer unsolicited advice. It is best to simply respect the patient and their choices.
- Don’t tell the patient about other people you know who were affected by cancer, especially if the outcome was negative.
- Don’t say “I know how you feel” unless you specifically had the same cancer treatment. It’s better to listen to the patient.
- Don’t tell the patient to “cheer up” or to “stay positive.” It might come across as insensitive or insulting.
- It could also add more pressure to an already stressed patient.
- Don’t engage in long phone calls or conversations. Cancer patients usually need rest, but the patient might be too polite to say so.
How to Help
Providing consistent, ongoing, and practical support to co-workers can be an important source of encouragement to a colleague throughout cancer treatment. If a patient is open to sharing their cancer journey, following are a few practical tips to show you care:
- Send notes. Short, personalized cards reminding patients that they are missed and that “work isn’t the same without them” can lift spirits far more than an expensive gift.
- Prepare gift baskets. A customized collection of work-related trinkets or comforting items will help the patient stay connected to the office.
- Deliver food. If you know the patient’s favorite food, offer to bring it over during lunch or dinner at a time convenient to the patient.
- Make time. Brief visits (always call or text ahead of time), sharing music, or watching a favorite TV show with the patient demonstrates genuine concern.
Returning to “normal” for your cancer patient colleagues likely includes resuming their pre-cancer work routine. But during treatment, adjusting work responsibilities and encouraging patients through appropriate words and actions, can have a positive impact on your colleague’s cancer experience and recovery.
Joseph P. Litam, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology—McAllen, 1901 South 2nd Street in McAllen, Texas.