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Useful Tips on How to Support a Colleague Dealing with Cancer

By Jenny Leung 20 May 2019
BROUGHT TO YOU BY BUPA GLOBAL Cancer, the big "C" word, can be a touchy subject, to say the least. Especially when it involves someone like a colleague or employee. If you don't know what to say or do when confronted with these situations, don't worry, you're not alone. However, since many cancer survivors value their working lives – both during and post-treatment – as ways to help restore normality, stability, and social contact, it is important for us to help them through this transition. Luckily, Bupa Global is here to give us some simple strategies that can make your workplace as supportive as possible.

Knowing What to Say

One of the most immediate concerns you might have is what to say. If you are anxious, take the pressure off yourself and be honest. "I don't know what to say other than I’m sorry about your cancer, and I’d like you to know I am here for you" acknowledges your discomfort while reassuring your colleague that they can turn to you if they wish to. Let your colleague guide conversations and decide how much to talk about their cancer. Some people want to be left alone; while there are others who need to be open. Balance this by doing their thinking for them, at times, to help lift their burden. For example, arrange or make lunch for them, or offer to take their calls if they feel too tired.

Support Strategies

Expect there to be good days and bad, emotionally and physically, for them. By being consistent in your caring attitude you’ll be helping them to weather this. This can mean making a point of having ‘normal’ work conversations – which can go a long way to help your co-worker feel they are still part of the team. Many professionals with cancer go back to work hoping for this kind camaraderie, and a return to ‘normal’.

Helping an Employee

Employers have a critical role to play in supporting a member of their staff in treatment for cancer and can make a huge difference in creating a supportive workplace environment. The first step to meeting their needs is to understand and appreciate the challenges of the return-to-work process. Fatigue, for example, is one of the most common side effects of cancer treatment. While it is different for everyone, small adjustments such as encouraging short breaks for rest and exercise can make a difference. Perhaps the most important step in any support strategy is to keep talking, as support needs may change over time. Encourage your employee to say what they would like from you – is it a flexible working arrangement, a phased return-to-work, or modifications to their role and/or workload? An open and honest discussion around expectations on both sides, as well as what is and is not possible at this time will lay strong, clear foundations for any new arrangements. Make a point of explaining all the support options your organisation provides, their benefits and how they can be accessed – whether through Human Resources or their line manager. It may also be useful to provide co-workers with best practice information or interactive sessions to educate them on how best to respond to their colleague and to dispel common myths about cancer.
[su_spoiler title="Sources" style="fancy" icon="plus-circle"] 1. 30 - 69 years old: World Cancer Day 2016 press release (, last accessed on February 2016. 2. Bupa (, last accessed on February 2016. [/su_spoiler]
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DISCLAIMER: This article was designed and produced by Bupa Global by searching internal and external data and information for information provision and reference purposes only. Any views or information mentioned and set out in this article/webpage are based on general situations. Readers should not regard them as medical advices or medical recommendations. Before making any decisions about the theme of this article, you are recommended to seek independent advice from suitable professionals (such as doctors, nutritionists, etc.). It is clearly stated that Bupa Global will not bear any responsibilities for others’ usage or interpretation of the information listed in this article. When preparing and/or updating this article, Bupa Global endeavours to ensure that the content is accurate, complete and updated but will not bear any responsibilities nor make any warranty or guarantee for the accuracy, completeness and timeliness of the information or for any claims and/or losses caused thereby.

Jenny Leung

Senior editor

Born in Hong Kong and raised in the UK, Jenny grew up with the best of both worlds. She loves just about anything to do with music and doesn’t shy away from belting out a tune or two when it comes to karaoke. If she’s not out and about exploring the city and practising her photography skills, she’s probably tucked up in bed with a book or glued to her laptop doing her online shopping.