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Six Ways to Show Incredible Support to a Co-Worker With Cancer

Updated: Oct 7, 2019

I originally published this story on LinkedIn.

As Marriott International Inc. president and CEO Arne Sorenson joins the ranks of cancer patients across the country who continue to work as they go through treatment, there are several ways their co-workers can support them. Sorenson, who was diagnosed on May 1 with stage two pancreatic cancer, will begin chemotherapy this week, according to Marriott International.

While it may be challenging to know what to do or say to help a coworker, below are some ways to show your support.

Treat them as you normally would

I continued to work as I went through active treatment for breast cancer last year, and that meant that I showed up at work with a bald head or with one that had very few hairs on it, thanks to chemotherapy. I know I looked different and it was apparent I was fighting for my life. But, I worked because I wanted to create a sense of normalcy and know that I remained productive. That said, I appreciated it when people treated me as they normally would, because inside I was the same person I had always been.

Offer to help where needed

There were times when I did cut down on the number of hours I worked, and that is typical for cancer patients. That means that I relied even more than I had before upon colleagues to help on projects, and it meant so much to know that they supported me. They helped out, no questions asked, without expectations that I “pay them back” later. The key to making this work is being clear with expectations and asking specifically how you can help the person who is sick, so you can learn the details of what is needed and by when.

Don’t tell stories of death or other grim details

Of course, even the most well-intentioned person can say something that is unintentionally hurtful. Unfortunately, most everyone has been affected by cancer, either when a loved one or acquaintance was sick with the disease. And, not everyone survives. The cancer patient knows that. While he or she is, of course, saddened by the fact that you lost someone due to the disease, reminding the cancer patient of that loss only reminds him or her of her own mortality— something they may be trying to take a break from thinking of. 

Express your concern

Of course, you want to show that you are concerned about a person fighting cancer, so try simply telling them you are sorry to hear they are sick. Tell them you support them and that you are there for them. Send them a card to let them know you are thinking of them. Buy them gift cards for their favorite restaurants that deliver, or give them gift cards to services like Grub Hub or Uber Eats. Even gift cards that could be used for grocery delivery sites would be useful. 

Don’t try to find causes for someone else’s disease

Again, even well-intentioned people may not realize how it comes across when they ask questions to try to figure out why a person got cancer. It may also be awkward when someone states why they think someone fighting cancer got sick. In reality, people sometimes don’t really know why they got cancer. I don’t know why I got cancer. I can speculate why I may have gotten it, and studies are done to try to determine all of the causes of cancer, but at the end of the day, sometimes you are just unlucky and get it.

Tell the cancer patient when you are sick

Chemotherapy kills your good and bad cells as it tries to eradicate cancer cells. That means that it diminishes your white blood cells, which fight infection. In my case, it felt like I had the immune system of a small child — I would catch a cold very easily. I caught a cold a few days after I started chemotherapy, and it took me much longer to shake it than it would have when I had a healthy immune system. That said, I was lucky enough to be able to work from home for the rest of my chemotherapy, and for that I am thankful. It was important because what may be a sniffle or small cold to a healthy person can turn into something much worse for a cancer patient. 

For more tips on how to help a coworker who is fighting cancer, check out the nonprofit Cancer and Careers.

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