The importance of good communication when supporting an employee with cancer

Talking about cancer in the workplace isn’t always easy. It’s can be frightening, awkward to discuss, and very personal. Some people find it easy to talk about their cancer but others are more private. Factors like gender, age or cultural differences can also make a conversation more difficult. For example, some men may not want to talk about their testicular cancer to a female boss or HR colleague. Or some women may find it awkward discussing the fitting of a breast implant or coping with hot flushes with a male colleague or manager. Cancer treatment is often difficult and the side effects can be exhausting, unpredictable, and long lasting. So, with all that in mind, it’s understandable that our first reaction as a line manager or colleague can often be to do one of the following:

1) Say something a bit thoughtless like “you’ll be fine” or “but you look really well.”

2) Talk about other people we know who had a similar form of cancer who either made a terrific recovery or had a difficult time.

3) Provide well-meaning, but not necessarily ‘helpful,’ advice on how to stop cancer coming back, based on gossip or media stories.

None of this is very helpful. It’s also unhelpful to ask someone how they are but then look disappointed or even irritated if they give you a detailed answer about treatment and side effects. You shouldn’t always expect the  standard ‘I’m fine’ response.

So, what is good communication when it comes to supporting a colleague with cancer?

1) Once you find out that your employee has a possible cancer diagnosis, make the time to speak to them in a quiet, private room. Ask about what form of cancer they have and their treatment plan as far as they know. Also, ask what information or assistance they need from you/the organisation. Make sure you’re well informed about company policies and where the employee can get help and support from within the organisation. At this early stage, you should be guided by your employee’s needs rather than relying entirely on organisational / HR policies. These may not necessarily cater for all the uncertainties of cancer diagnosis and treatment.

2) When talking to your employee about their cancer, listen to what support they may need and talk to them about how they are. By listening sensitively and carefully, you should be able to come up with a strategy that works for both them and the organisation.

3) Don’t rush conversations – it gives the impression that you don’t care. If you’ve arranged a meeting or phone call with the employee affected by cancer, please try not to cancel it unless you really have no choice.

4) Don’t be frightened of your employee’s emotions or yours.  If you or your employee become too distressed to continue, take a break and resume the meeting when things have settled down.

5) Keep communication open; not talking will make things harder to deal with. If for personal reasons it’s easier for the employee to keep in touch through a colleague, let them do so.

6) Respect the confidentiality of any meetings. Only pass on information to  people inside or outside the organisation with the employee’s express permission.

7) Make sure you have regular conversations with your employee so you know how things are progressing. And make sure you provide information as and when it’s needed. Key times for doing this are: when someone is diagnosed; when they begin active treatment; a few weeks before their return; and every two to four weeks after their return to work.

For more information about communicating effectively when supporting an employee with cancer, sign up to Macmillan at Work. As well as providing employers with free information and resources, Macmillan can also provide training for HR and line managers. You can also email us at

Barbara Wilson is founder of Working with Cancer. For more information, visit