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Work life 01 Mar 2021

Support a colleague affected by cancer

Two men talking

You’re not alone if you don’t know what to say or do when a colleague or employee is diagnosed with cancer. However, many cancer survivors value their working lives – both during and post-treatment – as ways to help restore normality, stability and social contact. By helping your colleague or employee through the transition with some simple strategies you can make your workplace as supportive as possible at a difficult time.

Knowing what to say

One of the most immediate concerns you might have is what to say. If you are anxious initially, take the pressure off yourself and be honest. "I don't know what to say other than I’m sorry about your cancer, and I’d like you to know I am here for you" acknowledges your discomfort while reassuring your colleague that they can turn to you if they wish to.

Let your colleague guide conversations and decide how much to talk about their cancer. Some people want to be left alone; others need to be open. Balance this by doing their thinking for them, at times, to help lift their burden. For example, arrange or make lunch for them, or offer to take their calls if they feel too tired.

Employers have a critical role to play in supporting a member of their staff in treatment for cancer and can make a huge difference in creating a supportive workplace environment.

Support strategies

Expect there to be good days and bad, emotionally and physically, for them. By being consistent in your caring attitude you’ll be helping them to weather this. This can mean making a point of having ‘normal’ work conversations – which can go a long way to helping your co-worker feel they are still part of the team. Many professionals with cancer go back to work hoping for this kind camaraderie - and a return to ‘normal’.

Helping an employee

Employers have a critical role to play in supporting a member of their staff in treatment for cancer and can make a huge difference in creating a supportive workplace environment.

The first step to meeting their needs is to understand and appreciate the challenges of the return-to-work process. Fatigue, for example, is one of the most common side effects of cancer treatment. While it is different for everyone, small adjustments such as encouraging short breaks for rest and exercise can make a difference.

Perhaps the most important step in any support strategy is to keep talking, as support needs may change over time. Encourage your employee to say what they would like from you: is it a flexible working arrangement, a phased return-to-work and or modifications to their role and/or workload? An open and honest discussion around expectations on both sides, and what is and is not possible at this time will lay strong, clear foundations for any new arrangements.

Make a point of explaining all the support options your organisation provides, their benefits and how they can be accessed - whether through Human Resources or their line manager. It may also be useful to provide co-workers with best practice information or interactive sessions to educate them on how best to respond to their colleague and to dispel common myths about cancer.

Bupa Global in partnership with the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) has created resources to help you create a supportive and effective working environment for those in treatment. Read more on how you can help an employee dealing with cancer, allowing them to return to work and do their job to the best of their current abilities.


1. 30 - 69 years old: World Cancer Day 2016 press release (, last accessed in February 2016.

2. Bupa (, last accessed in February 2016.

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