Work & Career
10 Caring Ways to Support a Coworker Who Has Breast Cancer
For starters, never assume a coworker battling cancer wants to minimize her workflow.
First, say this
First note that the nature and extent of your involvement with your coworker will vary greatly depending on the relationship you already have with her. If she chooses to tell you about her breast cancer, respond simply and sincerely. “Something like, ‘I am so sorry this is happening to you and I want you to know I’m here for you’ works because it articulates your support and doesn’t put action on her,” says Rebecca Nellis, chief mission officer at Cancer and Careers. (Related: These are the cancer symptoms women are most likely to ignore.)
Avoid blanket reassurances
“It’s a very human response to want to assure the person that everything is going to be OK,” says Nellis. But by doing so, you risk undermining the feelings and emotions that person is going through. This is how to support a loved one through chemotherapy.
Stay away from personal stories
Avoid comparing your coworker’s experience to a family member or friend’s. Even if your story has a happy ending, it can still be hurtful. “You don’t know where they’re at yet at that beginning stage, or what they’re facing,” says Nellis. “To normalize cancer, even if your intentions are good, could make them feel worse.”
Never say, “I know how you feel”
Even if you’ve survived breast cancer yourself, you can never truly understand another individual’s battle. Instead of making assumptions about her experience based on your own, use your experience to find ways to help that others close to her might not have considered. Read one breast cancer survivor’s 10 commandments of emotionally coping with breast cancer.
Don’t ask probing questions
Do you drink? Do you smoke? These questions and others like them are off limits. Satisfying your curiosity or proving a point is not worth more than your coworker’s feelings. (Related: These are the 13 things your breasts won’t tell you.)
Understand your coworker’s need for privacy
iStock/David Pereiras Villag
Even if your coworker chose to tell you about her diagnosis, don’t assume she plans to tell everyone in the office. “You don’t want to inadvertently disclose the cancer, or details about the cancer, with someone she wouldn’t have told herself,” says Nellis. One of the biggest privacy faux pas Nellis has seen has been people launching online fundraisers on behalf of their coworker without talking to that person first. “Doing that can open doors to privacy issues,” she says.
This is a big one, says Nellis. “I’d suggest people not make assumptions about why someone wants to work through treatment or why they don’t,” she says. “Lots of people like to work, want to work, and feel like it gives them an identity and allows them to be productive and give back to the world.”
Limit the cancer talk
This is something you can take a cue from your coworker on. If she likes to share updates on her condition, listen to her. But if she frequently steers the conversation toward work topics, limit asking questions about her sickness. “If you’re looking for a way to connect and don’t want to say, ‘How was treatment?’ maybe say, ‘I saw that next week it’s your turn to do the meeting prep, and I’m wondering if you’d like me to do that so you have one less thing on your plate?’” suggests Nellis. Try these almost effortless ways to increase your empathy.
Know there are side effects you can’t see
“Some people say, ‘Well you look healthy.’ But that doesn’t mean you feel healthy,” says Nellis. Common side effects of cancer treatment include fatigue, especially at work, and difficulty concentrating and staying focused. “Avoid making the assumption that because you coworker looks a certain way, that she’s not having problems.”
Be specific in how you can help
While statements like “let me know how I can help” might sound heartfelt, they put the burden on the other person to consider ways you can come to her aid. Instead, be specific in what you can do. “Say, ‘I would like to bring you lunch next week so you don’t have to worry about it. Is that OK? And if it is, can you tell me some things you’d be comfortable eating?’” says Nellis. Being a proactive force in your coworker’s life will remove the burden from her to delegate tasks on her own.