When a Coworker Has Cancer

By Paula Santonocito

Helping HandsSadly, it’s an experience too many people have had, and one others will likely encounter. A coworker, someone with whom you share the majority of your waking hours, has been diagnosed with cancer.

Statistically Speaking

Despite medical advances, cancer remains a leading cause of death for both women and men, second only to heart disease.

According to the most recent statistics available from the American Cancer Society, a woman has a 1 in 3 risk of developing some type of cancer in her lifetime.

For men, statistics are even less favorable. Research shows a man has a 1 in 2 risk or a 50 percent chance of developing cancer in his lifetime.

As you can see, it’s almost inevitable that at some point in your career you’ll work with someone who has cancer. The larger your workplace and the further along you are in your career both contribute to the likelihood.

On the Job

Nevertheless, even though you may work with someone who has cancer, the nature of your involvement will vary.

At work, you meet all different kinds of people and form different relationships. Some people become friends, in every sense of the word; others are friendly coworkers; and still others are people with whom you share the work experience but with whom you don’t particularly have a strong personal bond.

It’s important to recognize these differences to understand how you might relate to your ill coworker.

What to Do

Although you may feel compassion and concern for any and all people suffering with the disease, you don’t need to step up in every situation.

In fact, if you’re not particularly friendly with someone and the person becomes ill and suddenly you’re offering to help with everything, it could come across as disingenuous.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t offer assistance, if it is sincere. However, you should do what feels comfortable–comfortable to you and to the other person.

If the person is a true friend, she or he obviously deserves whatever support you can offer. This might be something as simple as listening. Or, it might be more specific assistance, like a ride to doctors’ appointments, running errands, and/or occasional child care.

It’s likely your friend will be reluctant to ask for help, and this is where you should take the initiative. For some women, this sort of conversation comes easy; for others it’s very difficult.

Where do you start?

By saying what you offer. “I want you to know I’m here for you. If you want to talk, any time, I’m here to listen.”

If you’re also available to provide additional assistance, let your friend know. “If you need a ride to the doctor’s or someone to run errands, feel free to call me.”

Make sure you are able to follow through before you offer, though. If you are the single mother of three young children, for example, you may not be in a position to provide this kind of support.

Friends and Others

If your ill coworker isn’t exactly a friend but rather an acquaintance with whom you’re friendly, you may want to offer the same kind of support.

Yet it’s entirely up to you.

In this situation, however, you may want to reach out in the context of work, particularly if you see your coworker struggling to keep up because of missed days or lack of energy.

What do you say?

Try to be specific. “If you need help with the XYZ project, let me know” tells your coworker what you can do, as opposed to “Let me know if I can do anything to help you.”

This same approach might be appropriate if the person isn’t someone with whom you’re friendly, but merely someone at work.

Again, though, you must do what feels right, and sincere.

What happens if it doesn’t feel right, especially if the person isn’t a friend, and you still have a sense you want to do something?

If you share the same boss, you might want to have a conversation with him or her. Something along the lines of, “I know Susan has a lot to deal with right now and if there’s anything I can do to lighten her load, please let me know.”

If you’ve talked with your friends at work and they’re willing to help, let them know you’re making this offer. They may ask that you speak for the group.

Remember, the goal is to provide support, but to do so in a way that feels right for your coworker who has cancer–and in a way that feels right for you.

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