Nowadays, cancer is widely recognized as a very serious illness. An alarming number of people are annually diagnosed with a malignant disease, while health organizations around the world have been relentlessly spreading awareness about its terrible health implications throughout the last four decades. Consequently, nearly everybody knows at least some basic facts about cancer. Nevertheless, despite being well aware of what a cancer diagnosis entails, most people simply do not know what to say upon finding out someone has it.
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While family members find it difficult to think about the right thing to say when a loved one shares the heavy news with them, the situation is even more delicate when a coworker – oftentimes someone who you do not know very well – tells you they have cancer. Finding the right words might be extremely difficult or, on the contrary, you might end up saying something inappropriate despite your best intentions. We have selected some of the most sensible approaches you can use to respond to such distressing news, as well as some well-intentioned but counterproductive comments you should never say to a coworker suffering from cancer.
I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I am here for you if you would like to talk.
Sometimes, being completely honest is the best approach. Instead of resorting to platitudes which may sound inauthentic or – even worse – not saying anything at all, it is better to let your coworker know how you are feeling and acknowledge your inability to find the right thing to say. At the same time, you are offering to listen if they ever decide to further discuss their diagnosis with you, allowing them to reach out to you for support without being too intrusive. This is often enough when you first find out about their illness and it is highly recommended to not pester them with additional questions.
I’m so sorry this is happening to you!
This is another simple yet heartfelt way of showing that you care. You do not have to elaborate and it will be sufficient as a first reaction in most cases, particularly if you and your coworker are not very close. Remember that revealing their diagnosis to you is a very difficult and emotionally charged moment for them as well, so they probably do not expect you to know exactly what to say. You can also follow with “I’m always here for you if you want to talk.” if you are willing to support them in the future.
I’m thinking of you.
Another simple but meaningful gesture is reminding your coworker that you care about them without asking any question related to their health. Saying “I’m thinking of you.” does not usually require a response and is a non-intrusive way of letting your coworker know they can reach out to you for emotional support whenever they feel the need. However, this might not be suitable to say as soon as they inform you about their illness, but you can use it as a genuine reminder throughout their struggle with cancer.
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I’m wishing you the best possible outcome!
You can also wish your coworker the best in a simple and sincere manner. Avoid clichés and platitudes and do not engage in a long motivational speech, as it will most likely make them feel awkward. They may also perceive you as inauthentic. Keeping it short and letting them know you are concerned about their situation will certainly be more appreciated. An alternative to this can be “I hope things will get easier for you.”
Don’t worry about work.
A survey conducted by Lori Hope – journalist, author, speaker and lung cancer survivor – revealed that this comment is greatly valued by people suffering from cancer. Needless to say, you should only tell this to your coworker if you really are willing to help them with work-related tasks or if they are your employee and would like to alleviate their stress. Thus, you will encourage them to focus primarily on their health while temporarily reducing their responsibilities.
What You Should Never Say to a Coworker Struggling with Cancer
You might be tempted to throw in a series of platitudes when your coworker announces they have cancer out of fear of offending them by underreacting to their serious diagnosis or might say something that comes naturally but is, in fact inappropriate, hurtful or offensive. Cancer is a very sensitive and personal subject and opening up about it often requires a great amount of strength. Even though your coworker will probably understand your reaction, we strongly encourage you to never use the following phrases when talking to them about their illness, as they might feel misunderstood, invalidated or offended:
- Everything will be fine. – No one knows for sure how their situation will turn out, so you should avoid assuring your coworker their illness will get better in absence of concrete evidence. They can perceive this as you dismissing their worries and invalidating their concern.
- Things will get better. – You do not know for sure their cancer will respond to treatment and consequently, appearing very convinced they will be cured can easily feel dismissive as well.
- I know how you feel. – Even if you are suffering from a form of cancer yourself, you cannot know how another person is feeling about their own diagnosis, since everyone’s situation, coping resources and illness is unique. You should also avoid comparing your coworker’s situation with other cancer patients’, as this may feel invalidating as well.
- Stay positive! – This can put pressure on them to act a certain way, which often does not feel natural when it comes to battling cancer. Encouraging them to focus on the positive will certainly not help, especially if they are going through a particularly difficult period.
- It could be worse. – Once again, comparing their situation with the circumstances of people who you believe have to deal with many difficult things is not useful or beneficial in any way and can have the opposite effect. Your coworker might feel you are not taking their suffering seriously if you are comparing their struggle with people who allegedly have it worse.
- Keep fighting! – Similarly to “Stay positive!”, a person struggling with cancer might not want to hear this, particularly if they are in a worse mood than usual. There might be certain moments when they do not feel like fighting anymore. Instead, you could try listening and assuring them it is perfectly normal to feel negative emotions.