How to support a work friend with cancer

For many of us, our coworkers are more than the people we work with. They become lifelong friends who we value greatly and are important parts of our lives. That’s why learning that a work friend has cancer comes as a huge shock and leaves you feeling incredibly upset.

It’s normal to want to do what you can for a colleague with cancer, but if you aren’t sure about what to say or how you can support them, then you aren’t alone. This article contains useful suggestions for how to offer support to a work friend with cancer following their diagnosis, through treatment and beyond.

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Speak with kindness

When talking to someone with cancer, it’s crucial that what you say is sincere and considerate. If you want your work friend to know you care about them, it’s alright to say such things as:

  • “I’m so sorry this is happening to you.”
  • I’m here for you.”
  • “If you want to talk about anything, just let me know.”
  • “Is there anything I can do that will make navigating this easier for you?”
  • “How are you feeling today?”
  • “Is there anything you need?”

Avoid overly positive, throwaway comments such as ‘Everything will be fine’ or ‘You’re a fighter’. These can put pressure on your friend to feel like they must always appear cheery. Stories about other peoples’ experiences of cancer also run the risk of invalidating your friend’s feelings or adding to their worry. In addition, refrain from commenting on their appearance as this may affect their self-esteem.

Educate yourself about their diagnosis

Learning about your work friend’s diagnosis will give you a better understanding of what they are going through. You’ll find a huge range of information online including videos, podcasts, and websites. However, there are plenty of other resources available too such as books, TV programmes and guides from cancer charities.

If you and your work friend are close enough, you may even feel comfortable asking them directly about their diagnosis and their physical and mental wellbeing.

Keep in mind though that everyone is different. One person may prefer to keep things private while someone else could be incredibly open to discussing their situation and how they are feeling. Let your work friend guide conversation and pay close attention to their ques when discussing their diagnosis. Try not to pry if it’s clear they are uncomfortable and respect their wishes if they say they don’t want to talk about it.

Remind them of any applicable employee benefits

When someone first receives a cancer diagnosis, it’s not uncommon for them to feel overwhelmed and not know where to turn for help or overlook resources that are available to them.

This is where you can offer a gentle nudge in the right direction. If you are aware that your workplace has employee benefits that may help your work friend, such as cancer specialist nursing, private health coverage, and/or mental health support, you can remind them of this. They may even appreciate you sharing documentation or links as this will reduce the mental load of them needing to do it themselves.

Don’t shy away from everyday conversations

It’s easy for a cancer diagnosis to become all-encompassing. However, it’s important to remember that your work friend is more than just someone with cancer. They’ll likely appreciate talking about other topics for a sense of normalcy and to prevent their diagnosis from becoming their identity.

It’s ok to engage in everyday chit-chat like you did before their diagnosis. This could simply be an exchange about the morning commute or a catch-up about your families. If your connection with your work friend has always been based on humour, it’s still ok for this to continue, just make sure it’s at appropriate times.

Embrace adaptability

Many people continue to work when they have cancer. If your work friend is one such person, they will likely time off to attend appointments, have treatment and recuperate.

With your work friend absent, your employer may ask you to take on additional tasks to help with their workload. It’s understandable if you feel more pressure at work as a result but try to embrace the challenge. Look for the positives in the situation such as the opportunity to work with different colleagues or learn new skills. Also, try not to let resentments build toward your work friend; remember that they haven’t chosen the situation they are in.

Give them a gift

If you think that a present will make your work friend smile but aren’t sure what to get, why not ask them what they need? It could be that they’d appreciate a pair of over-ear headphones so that they can listen to music during chemotherapy treatments or that they would love some soft loungewear to keep them comfortable at home.

If you’d prefer it to be a surprise, a gift card is a good option, especially if they can redeem it online. That way, they can buy what they need in their own time and get it delivered to their house. If you are happy to gift your time, you could even offer to run errands for them or carry out some household chores.

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