According to the American Cancer Society, roughly 4,950 new cases get diagnosed each day, in the United States alone. No matter what type or stage, cancer is a devastating disease that has an impact on not just the individual diagnosed, but also their family, friends and colleagues. The sad reality is that at some point in your career, you may be in the challenging position of either navigating a cancer diagnosis or supporting a friend or colleague with their cancer journey.
At Red Hat, we understand that our colleagues are humans who exist outside of the (home) office. This is why we have an internal, self-organized and informal group dedicated to individuals who have a connection to cancer—whether they are patients, survivors, or caregivers. This group is a safe space to discuss cancer-related challenges, celebrate each other's milestones, and sadly, sometimes grieve each other’s losses.
In the spirit of transparency, I am a recent cancer survivor who is extremely grateful for the support of my teammates. I asked the group to share thoughts and ideas on how colleagues can be supportive, as well as advice if you’re going through treatments and continuing work. We hope these tips can be applied to not just cancer diagnosis, but any diagnosis.
Respecting communication boundaries
First, respect your coworker’s privacy. Understand that a diagnosis of any kind is an extremely difficult thing to process, let alone talk about initially. Don’t pry for details; instead, offer a safe space for us to share as we are comfortable. This is especially important as we are undergoing diagnosis—we may not have all of the details ourselves.
In the beginning, respect that your coworker is enduring a huge mental and physical hardship that they may not be ready to disclose (or even have all the) details about. I had a solid three weeks of appointments, tests, and procedures before I was even able to get a biopsy.
While you may not be ready to share details with all your coworkers if you’re going through a diagnosis, one thing many Red Hatters in the cancer support group found helpful was being able to talk openly to a manager or other close colleague about their schedule, PTO we need to take for appointments, and any meetings we may need to miss.
Work understandably becomes a secondary priority, but we also don’t want to drop the ball on any projects. Many of us agreed that it’s very helpful to have a trusted teammate offer to take notes during important meetings and take over any time-sensitive projects. For managers who have a direct report balancing treatments and work, it’s very important to establish an open line of communication, and be understanding and flexible.
Managers can make a big difference
Having the full support of a manager is absolutely critical, one Red Hatter noted. They also said knowing that their manager supported them, cared, and wanted to help—including encouraging them to take the time they needed—was a huge relief. The last thing we want to worry about as we go through treatments and are worried sick about our own health (pun intended) is also worrying about letting our managers and teammates down.
If you’re a manager, offer to be the gatekeeper for communication. I had my manager send an email to my full team with details about my diagnosis. While that may not seem like much, it helped me protect my emotional health and communication boundaries, while still ensuring my team was informed about what I was going through and the changes to my schedule ahead.
It’s OK to ask for help
If you are on a team with somebody who is taking time off for treatments and are asked to take on an additional project (or two), please be kind and understand that it’s not anybody’s fault. Your teammate is not asking for help because they’re lazy or didn’t manage their time well; they’re asking for help because they are fighting a life-threatening disease.
For the patient choosing to continue to work during treatment, like me, there is a lot of paperwork to navigate. Ask for help. Some of us needed to take Family and Medical Leave (FMLA) leave for chemotherapy and radiation, which requires all sorts of paperwork and understanding complex company policies.
It can be difficult to know where to start and is an overwhelming process on top of everything else. Remember, it’s OK to ask for help navigating insurance companies and paperwork. You have never had to know about this before!
How to keep in touch and check in
Many of us in the support group agreed that while we don’t always want to talk about our treatments and how they’re going, it’s nice to have friends and teammates periodically check in on us. Even a simple "Hey, I’m thinking of you" chat can help boost spirits and help us feel connected with our work and our work friends.
Asking if it’s OK to keep in touch and check in keeps the line of communication open, but also allows us to respond when we are emotionally available to talk about our treatments, without worrying we are hurting our friend’s feelings.
Sharing motivational cards, funny videos, pet and baby pictures or a funny story that happened in a meeting we missed also helps us feel supported and connected to our teams, even when we are working part time or out for extended periods.
An easy way to show support to teammates going through difficult treatments is by giving gifts. One of our group members shared that receiving a bag with snacks, a phone charger, and an activity book was a really thoughtful and useful gift. Offering to make dinner, delivering groceries or sending food delivery gift cards is likely to be appreciated and useful, as is sending board games, books, TV recommendations or a subscription to entertainment services that help pass the time while your co-workers cope with treatments and recovery.
Flowers are beautiful, but keep in mind cancer patients often have sensitivity to smells, so ask before you send. Socks, water bottles, blankets/scarves and beanies also make thoughtful, useful gifts for those going through treatment. And of course, asking "What can I do to help? Can I drive you to treatment? Can I walk your dog, watch your kid, or hang out with you so your caregiver can get a break?" are some of the best, easiest and free gifts that have the biggest impact.
And last but not least, we have to share what NOT to do or say to colleagues in their trying times. It may be obvious, but, please do not comment on their hair (or lack thereof) or appearance on video meetings. Saying, "You look great!" or "You don’t even look sick!" may seem like nice statements, but are often not the most reassuring for patients to hear.
While it’s nice to hear of other people you know having undergone similar treatment, keep in mind it will be different for everybody. Also, saying things like "At least they caught it early!" or "At least you don’t have to XYZ" can be viewed as toxic positivity that undermines the diagnosis and can cause guilt to kick in.
One final thought: If your teammate didn’t use coloring books before starting chemotherapy, they aren’t going to start coloring now!
About the author
Gaby Berkman (she/her) has been on the Corporate Communications team at Red Hat since 2017 and considers herself a professional communicator, with more than a decade of experience in public and analyst relations. She is a blood cancer survivor - having overcome Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 2020 - and enjoys birding, indoor cycling, reading and spending time with her dog and family.