Cancer in the Workplace: Co-Worker Tip Sheet

Sometimes cancer is diagnosed suddenly without much warning. If this happens, you must be prepared to react with empathy and show support. Avoid telling stories about other people you know who have been diagnosed and focus on the employee sharing her or his diagnosis.


January 09, 2020

Tips on how co-workers can support their peers, helping employees cope with dealing with cancer, how supervisors can support an employee dealing with cancer and help HR staff with solutions to support their employees dealing with cancer.

When a co-worker has cancer it can create stress, concern, sadness and uncertainty for the whole team. Cancer is a serious illness, but with additional support and time off, some people can work during their treatment. Others find that they need more rest or feel too sick to continue working and need to take a leave of absence. You can play an important role helping your co-worker prioritize her or his health by staying flexible about responsibilities and offering empathy. 

Getting the News

Focus on ways to support your co-worker and respect your colleague’s privacy during this difficult time:  

  • Getting the news. When an employee notifies you that she or he has been diagnosed with cancer, focus on ways to support your employee and respect her or his privacy.
  • Keep the news confidential and limit detailed discussions of your employee’s medical situation. Unless the employee has told you that it is OK to share the diagnosis with co-workers, do not tell anyone but your human resources (HR) department. Each employee will decide what she or he is comfortable sharing with their supervisor and colleagues.
  • Lean on your HR colleagues. HR will coordinate benefits, freeing you up to focus on managing the team’s work. HR also should be able to suggest programs, resources and policies to help employees with cancer.

Supporting Your Co-worker With Cancer

There are many things you can do to support your coworker during treatment: 

  • Learn all you can about cancer. A list of helpful resources is included at the end of this tip sheet.
  • Understand that a co-worker with cancer may have days when she or he does not feel well because of side effects from treatment. Side effects can be physical or emotional and may affect how much your colleague is able to get done and how she or he interacts with people at work.
  • Be ready to step up to cover some tasks for your co-worker. If your co-worker can work during treatment, she or he may need help completing tasks. When your colleague is out of the office, you may be asked to take on additional responsibilities to help cover her or his projects.
  • Don’t lose your sense of humor around your coworker. As always, be appropriate about humor in the workplace, but a little levity goes a long way to helping people feel normal and happy.

Ask your co-worker how you can help.  There are some things, like flowers and food types that people with certain cancers cannot have. For that reason, it is best to ask about any restrictions before making plans. Suggestions for appropriate gifts include:

  • Cards or small gifts (socks, hats, hard candies);
  • Help with household needs, such as meals, childcare or errands;
  • An offer to donate sick or vacation time (if possible at your job); and
  • An offer to throw a party when treatment is completed (with permission from the co-worker). 

After Treatment

After treatment ends, your co-worker may still need support. People whose cancer is in remission may still be going to regular follow-up appointments. Some people may require additional treatments to help keep their cancer from coming back. Be prepared to step in to assist your co-worker at times in the future, even if the initial treatment is over.

Taking Care of Yourself

If you are feeling sad, anxious or stressed about your colleague’s diagnosis, resources are available to help you as well.

  • Employee assistance programs are often free and may include counseling services or support groups. To access these programs or find out more, talk to your supervisor or Human Resources.
  • Talk to your supevisor about worklaod concerns. Taking on extra work when a co-worker has cancer can be difficult, especially if it’s for long periods of time. Your supervisor needs to know if you’re having a hard time managing additional responsibilities. 

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  1. Getting the News
  2. Supporting Your Co-worker With Cancer
  3. After Treatment
  4. Taking Care of Yourself