Co-worker with a Capital C

You’re at work one day when someone whispers to you that a colleague of yours was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. How do you react? How do you approach the subject to show your support for what she’s going through? Or do you simply pretend everything’s normal so she doesn’t feel awkward?

A few weeks ago, I got asked this question by someone who’s colleague was recently diagnosed. Everyone in the workplace had heard about it but he wanted to do something. And as a guy, it wasn’t too easy to think of ways of approaching this sensitive issue. I provided a few suggestions based on what I’ve heard from other survivors I’d met with, but kept the question in my mind. How much can we really help someone in a professional setting?

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I learned most about it from the latest survivor I met (who’s story I’ll be sharing in the coming weeks). Working in the highly-competitive environment of an ad agency, when she was diagnosed in 2005 she had no idea that her co-workers and boss would be so supportive. The people you see on a daily basis play a significant role in your life – whether they are friends, family or colleagues. Even more so when you’re going through a difficult phase in your life and need their support now more than ever. You’ll also come to see a whole other side of people in these trying times. Someone who you thought would react one way, would completely surprise you and act another way.

We underestimate the kindness in others, regardless of how serious or distant they seem in the workplace environment.

If you’re ever in a situation where a co-worker is diagnosed with breast cancer and you don’t know what to do, here are a few ideas:

1. The elephant in the room. Many times in Lebanon, breast cancer patients will do their best to minimize others finding out. It’s still very much taboo here and a big part of why they do it is because they don’t want looks of pity or to be treated differently from the rest. If she’s not talking about it but you notice something is different, be gentle. Ask her how she’s doing (generally) and see if she needs anything. This may take a few times before she opens up, but she’ll notice you’re genuinely interested in her condition and might share more.

2. At the watercooler. If people start talking about her condition behind her back, try your best to minimize the gossip – especially if she hasn’t made it public. Talk can be very hurtful and not many people here know how to deal with cancer so even their good intentions may not be interpreted as such. Instead, direct your energies as a group to plan ways you cheer her up and lessen the workload on her on days she’s not feeling too well.

3. It’s the little things. If you’re close to your co-worker, lend a shoulder when she needs to let it out, even if you have a crazy deadline. She needs your support now more than ever. Buy her flowers or cute little gifts to cheer her up. Keep finding little ways to show her you’re thinking about her.

4. Ask how she’s doing (and mean it). Oftentimes, she won’t want to talk about breast cancer or how she’s feeling especially if you’re not that close as co-workers, but be sure to ask her how she’s doing and provide any assistance if she needs it.

5. As a boss, your role is critical. Work is work, but she’s going to have days when she’s not feeling so well and needs to take time off. Chemotherapy has several side effects that truly makes it impossible for her to leave her bed. When you find out that she has breast cancer, talk to her in private about this and offer ways she can get the time off she needs during this period. Maybe her workload will need to be divided with another employee if she’s usually under a lot of pressure. Be sure however to ensure her that her position won’t be jeopardized during this period and show your understanding for what she’s going through. I’m sure you know someone who’s gone through a similar experience, so share that with her. Cancer puts us all on the same level.

6. Days off. There are going to be days she’ll be feeling well and others, not so much and will need to take the day off. Understand that it’s not something in her hands so facilitate by taking a load of her. If you’re on the same team, try to redistribute the work among other teammates during this period. Keep her involved though and don’t assume she won’t be able to do any work because of her state. On the contrary, work also helps take the mind off what she’s going through so don’t make her feel like she’s not needed or insist she take time off when she doesn’t need it.

7. The wig and beauty treatment. As a delicate subject and a big concern to a women about to undergo chemotherapy, one way you can help her (and this is directed to female co-workers in particular) is to take her somewhere to purchase a wig. This also depends on how open she’s been with you about her experience. Other ways to also help would be to treat her to a small makeover before she starts treatment to feel pretty and good about herself. Get one or two other co-workers with you and hop to the closest beauty salon during your lunch break.

8. Financial support. The woman who shared this insight with me couldn’t have been more grateful to her boss for the role he played in her treatment. Financially, she couldn’t afford all the hospital bills, but he went beyond the call of duty to cover all her bills and even sent her with some of her colleagues to buy a great-looking wig to wear before chemotherapy. If your co-worker is in a similar position, helping her financially by collecting some money from fellow co-workers or discussing it with your boss if she/he doesn’t know her state, would relieve a huge stress from her shoulders. Instead of worrying about how she’s going to pay this and this bill or not doing the full treatment she needs to do, she’ll focus on what needs to be done to kick cancer in the butt.

I hope I covered all the points, but if you have any suggestions, please share with me so I can update the list. Keep in mind most importantly to be kind and supportive during this difficult period. This too shall pass and she’ll be healthy in a few months. Trust me, she’ll appreciate it more than she might express.


One thought on “Co-worker with a Capital C

  1. Catherine says:

    Can I suggest doing small favours? When I was in treatment, co-workers brought in cake, wild flowers, etc – their thoughtfulness (plus that fantastic food – another great way to help anyone coping with chemo) always brightened my day.


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