Vincy Workplace
June 3, 2011
What to do when a coworker has Cancer

After a recent presentation, a female audience member came up to me to discuss my program.{{more}} A few minutes into our conversation, and much to our surprise, we realized that we had a mutual colleague, and we laughed about how small the world really is. Then she stopped laughing, her faced dropped, and she said: “Did you hear?” I said, “Hear what?” The young female audience member with the sad face said “She has cancer.” I was shocked, and as soon as I got back to my office, I sent the colleague a message letting her know she was in my prayers and that I cared about her.

Unfortunately, every day someone is told they have cancer. Family, friends and coworkers are often devastated by the news, and many have no idea how to respond or even if they should respond. As St. Vincent spends the month of June promoting cancer awareness, it’s important to keep the following in mind:

Cancer is not contagious. No matter how close you get to a cancer patient, you cannot contract cancer, so there is no need to ostracize someone with the disease.

Not everyone dies from cancer. Cancer is often seen as a death sentence, especially in the Caribbean region, but it does not have to be.

Offer your genuine support. It’s okay to let your coworker know that you are there to help with completing work duties if necessary. However, don’t assume that they are instantly incapable of performing their duties.

Treat the person with compassion. Cancer patients are still people. When you are around them, please refrain from excessive crying and morbid conversation. The person is still alive, so help them enjoy that time instead of focusing only on the effects of cancer. Carry on the relationship as before; be funny, silly, and even a little sarcastic, if that was the nature of the relationship prior to the diagnosis.

Offer support around the home. Some cancer patients do not always have as much energy while going through treatment. If you have time, offer to run errands, give them a ride to appointments, or help out in other ways. If you say yes to a commitment, make sure you honor it.

Skip the gossip when physical changes occur. Sometimes there are physical changes in the patient. Hair loss and weight loss are not unusual, and the changes can also be very dramatic for some people. If that occurs, it’s easy to get involved in conversation about how thin the coworker has become or how much hair has been lost. Please resist the urge to engage in such unkind conversations.

Hold a fundraiser. One of the reasons many Caribbean nationals feel a sense of hopelessness after a cancer diagnosis is due in part to the financial cost associated with finding care regionally or even internationally. Holding fundraisers is yet another way to lend your support to the family of the patient. However, please ask permission to do so before you organize any events.

Do not publicize the diagnosis. Some people prefer to fight their cancer in private. In other words, they prefer that only a few people know their health situation. If that is the case, please respect that person’s decision and privacy, and keep your mouth closed.

Send cards. Individual personalized cards, phone calls and uplifting emails can go a long way to boosting spirits.

Keep them in the loop. Anyone who is sick and absent from their regular routine can feel lonely. Do your best to update them on events in the community and at work.

Watch for the list of cancer awareness events throughout the month of June. Attend the events and bring a friend, and help break the silence on cancer.

Karen Hinds is “The Workplace Success Expert.” For a FREE SPECIAL REPORT on Avoiding Career Killers in the Workplace, send an email to

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