A breast cancer diagnosis is devastating and all too common. An estimated one in eight women in the U.S. will receive this diagnosis in their lifetime, and those affected by the disease have every part of their lives touched: family, romantic relationships, friendships, their relationship with themselves, and, yes, their work.
For people in the workforce that experience this life-altering diagnosis, most choose to tell their teams — 77% of those navigating cancer tell their manager and 63% disclose to their coworkers, according to a 2022 Cancer and Careers Harris Poll. For those that opt to share, navigating these conversations can be difficult. “It’s a hard topic,” says Christy Lyons, CEO and principal at 4 Point Consulting, an on-demand HR and talent advisory firm, who focuses much of her thinking on mental health at work. And while there is much to say about managing the task-related logistics of having someone with cancer on your team, there aren’t many resources out there that address the psychological burden — specifically, how we can help alleviate the mental anguish those with cancer are going through.
Cancer is difficult to discuss from any point of view, of course, but a workplace, with its sometimes-blurry distinctions between what is “work related” and what isn’t, can present especially challenging scenarios. To better understand these scenarios, we spoke with five women who have talked about their breast cancer diagnoses at work, and they’ve experienced the gamut of how colleagues react. While it’s a small sample size, we believe that, together, their stories show that there are better and worse ways to support a colleague through this experience, and they offer some helpful strategies to be there for someone who is facing this diagnosis.
What Not to Say
Breast cancer patients are often deluged by well-meaning but unhelpful platitudes, especially with people they may know only casually at work. According to the Harris Poll, 21% of working adults with cancer encountered “insensitive or offensive comments regarding their cancer diagnosis.”
Sabrina Elizondo, an executive producer at a mixed media production company, experienced this when, at one point in her chemo cycle, she was feeling better and posted some photos of herself at a music festival doing cartwheels. At work the following Monday, her boss commented: “If you have the energy to do cartwheels, I feel like you have the energy to take on more work.” The observation felt like a gut-punch, flipping Elizondo’s momentary gratitude for the ability to have a bit of fun into a dehumanization. “Her indifference made me feel so much less seen and cared for as a human,” Elizondo explains.
Jamie Parcon, an accountant, points out that even comments that seem like they are coming from a place of support may have unintended painful reverberations. “I felt like one in five responses were that they knew someone else who had breast cancer,” says Parcon. Lyons says she thinks this is most people’s gut reaction. “We want to relate it to our own stories,” she says. “Everybody has been touched by cancer.” But while this may seem innocuous to say, “it didn’t make me feel better to know other people had to suffer,” Parcon explains.
Other knee-jerk responses like “You’ll get through this!” are tempting, but they can also alienate the person wading through this treacherous experience — especially if that’s all you say, and it isn’t followed up with meaningful support. “I got platitudes and then silence,” says Anais Masiello, an entertainment attorney. “Supportive words were easy to come by, but I was made very aware of how burdensome [my reduced capacity at work] had become, which made me feel isolated.”
Vagaries like “You’ll beat this” can often be unwelcome, too. Plus, promising or hinting at a full recovery isn’t appropriate when you don’t know all the details. “A genuine, helpful text message spoke volumes compared to a ‘You’ve got this!’” says Casey Liening, a spokesperson for a municipal police department. There’s also an implicit, and often unappreciated, sentiment at work here: that cancer patients are “warriors” who will vanquish the foe in their bodies. This, of course, is not how cancer treatment works, and this sentiment can actually have the opposite effect, especially when things feel particularly challenging: “It made me feel like I was weak, not strong enough,” says Elizondo.
Another pitfall to avoid: Steer clear of doling out unsolicited advice. “It’s not asked for or needed,” says Liening. “When I first learned my treatment wouldn’t consist of surgery, chemo, or radiation, I must have told someone at work. That started a rumor that I was choosing not to undergo any type of treatment,” she says. Colleagues sharing their thoughts on that was very unwelcome. Telling someone how to feel, what to do, or making assumptions about their health amid this potentially life-threatening experience is both unwanted and, in no uncertain terms, unhelpful.
And while it’s understandable to be concerned about your colleague’s workload and how that might affect yours, those thoughts need to be relegated to second place. Their well-being and health must come first and foremost, not their ability to get things done. “For my coworkers who feel stress, well, I have that stress [too], plus chemo, chemo brain, menopausal brain, and all the worries and financial strain that come along with metastatic cancer,” says Elizondo. “I’m amazed I do as well as I do, but sometimes I want to remind my bosses that I’m dealing with this on top of everything, so they cut me a little slack. But I also don’t want a pity card or a ‘special’ narrative. It’s a double-edged sword.”
Better Ways to Support a Colleague with Breast Cancer
The most important thing? “Follow their lead,” says Lyons. Some people will want to open up, some won’t. For some, their work life may offer a haven from the realities of living with cancer, and they may not want to talk about cancer and all that it entails — if so, honor that. (The Harris Poll found that 40% of respondents said they kept working in order to feel “as normal as possible.”)
That said, we asked the women we spoke with to share examples from times that they actually felt supported at work to help guide your actions. Parcon recounts a card sent to her by a colleague. “Inside, it says ‘I’m sorry this is happening to you.’” It’s simple, yes, but “those words were a breath of fresh air,” she says. “It was finally empathy instead of sympathy that I was getting from everyone else.” Masiello similarly appreciated when the words felt specific, rather than generic. Genuine words of care, Masiello says, look like “Your strength is inspirational, I just wish you didn’t have to be this strong,” or notes she received the mornings of her treatments that said “One more down!” “All of those small actions mean so much,” she says.
Far from pedantic platitudes, that attentiveness towards your colleague’s exact situation demonstrates understanding and communicates care. “One thing a coworker said to me that I’ll never forget is ‘Stage 4 is not a death sentence,’” says Liening. “This one meant just a little bit more because sometimes it does feel like exactly that. Subtle reminders to stay positive were always enlightening.” While the line between these sentiments and more generic responses might not be crystalline to those who haven’t experienced cancer themselves, they are orders of magnitude different. In Liening’s example, the commenter both knew and remembered specific information about her diagnosis, and walked the fine line between support and toxic positivity: no effusive promises, just thoughtfulness hedged in truth and personal experience. It is worth stating, however, that not everyone wants positivity. Sometimes, just being the person to reiterate “This sucks” is heartening.
Parcon also liked when colleagues checked in, as it allowed her not to have to volunteer updates. Masiello’s coworkers sprung into action, another concrete way to help: “Having coworkers who simply took care of things without me having to worry about it was the most helpful thing. They didn’t want me to have to worry about the work on my plate around treatment or surgery days. I had coworkers fill me in on any calls or meetings I missed so I didn’t feel out of the loop,” she says. “I was encouraged to take as much time as I needed, and knew that I’d always have someone to help out in my absence. Coworkers stepped in preemptively, took care of things on my behalf, and checked in to see how I was doing with genuine care,” Masiello says.
Lyons says this goes a long way towards creating a supportive culture — the more proactive you can be, the less burden on the person with cancer. After all, how often is “Let me know if I can do anything” met with silence? When it comes to workload and work-related tasks just do something, don’t ask. Jessica Sidener, a library executive, said one of the most unexpectedly thoughtful things her colleagues did was assisting her with prioritizing tasks. “My colleagues kindly and clearly let me know when I was doing too much and helped me prioritize the to-dos, obligations, and responsibilities, especially when I felt too overwhelmed to navigate them on my own,” she explains. “For those tasks that did have a sense of urgency, they figured out how they could step in.”
The feeling of community can also offer solace. “The overall attitude among my colleagues was we will get through this versus you will get through this,” says Sidener. Liening felt this sense of solidarity, too, when her coworkers created a fundraiser for her, and said “No one fights alone.” “That has served as the most amazing reminder of how big my support system is,” she says.
It’s important to remember that the fears your colleague might be wrestling with don’t necessarily have a timeframe, and therefore support shouldn’t either. While your colleague may wrap up treatment, announce a remission, and seemingly recover, “there’s challenges that come in the aftermath,” says Lyons. People who’ve navigated cancer and are now technically “on the other side of it” will confront fears of recurrence, face years-long daily medications and their side effects as well as follow-up appointments with oncologists, may contend with a body full of scars, and potentially experience debilitating exhaustion. Breast cancer, oftentimes, isn’t quick or simple. It doesn’t get tied up with a bow. People deal with after-effects for years to come. The compassion that comes from continued check-ins — “How are you feeling?” or “What is survivorship like for you?” — can be invaluable.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that following this advice isn’t guaranteed protection against taking a misstep or making a comment that your colleague with cancer will find hurtful. And you may not always know when or even if one of your thoughts, comments, or actions has been received this way. But that isn’t a reason to stop showing up, or to avoid your coworker — the disappearing act can be the most painful of all. Humility, a willingness to be corrected, and a continued effort to make your colleague feel cared for are your greatest assets — use them. “It really does help to be able to be open, and have [that openness] met with love,” says Masiello.