Supporting a Colleague Who Has Breast Cancer


By Elaine Webb

In Canada this year, it is estimated that 25,000 women and 220 men1 will receive a breast cancer diagnosis. Early detection of the disease usually results in a better outcome, and many women will go on to resume relatively normal lives following treatment and recovery. By the numbers, about 5,000 women will die of the disease in 2015 – the majority of these because it recurred. The five-year survival rate in Canada is 88 per cent.

You may have recently learned that a colleague has breast cancer and you’re feeling upset, concerned for her and her family, and uncertain about how you can provide support. She may have told you the news herself and if that is the case, you could ask her whether others in the organization were aware. Take the lead from her about how she wants to handle the situation then frame your support accordingly.

For many people with cancer, continuing with work is very important as it provides a source of stability because it is routine and familiar. This can help when a woman living with breast cancer is feeling out of control in other ways. Work can boost self-worth and help her focus on what she is able to do rather than on her diagnosis. Work also provides contact with others which is very comforting during a time of isolation.

A workplace colleague therefore can play a critical role at a very challenging time, so dive in and consider these tips and suggestions:

  • If she is still in the office (pre- or post-treatment), take your colleague out for coffee or tea and practice active listening. Be honest about your feelings of uncertainty, but explain that you sincerely want to help.
  • Respect your colleague’s wish for privacy and confidentiality. Never push her for details.
  • Don’t overdo the sympathy. Your colleague may be trying to keep life as normal as possible where she can. However, don’t avoid speaking to her because you think she’ll be embarrassed talking about her disease.
  • Don’t say, “I know how you feel” unless you have had cancer yourself. Express empathy and sincerity and offer practical assistance, either at work or at home.
  • If your co-worker is going to be off for a while, find out her preferred way to keep in touch. This might be a regular phone call, text, email or visit. You can ask her what work-related information she’d like to know about and how often she’d like to hear from you.
  • While she is off, suggest a number of ways you and your employee group could help. Recruit members and organize a schedule for a month at a time. This will give your colleague some peace of mind and allow her to plan, knowing what to expect
  • Your helping hands could include: driving her to appointments, babysitting, participating in children’s carpools, dog walking, laundry, meal planning and grocery shopping, cooking and baking, cleaning and or simply tidying her home.
  • If she celebrates Christmas, plan a holiday cookie party for her, providing she is up for it, and make an occasion of it by bringing decorations to help her dress up her home.
  • Offer small gifts for her children and partner. This may help to alleviate some of the guilt she is experiencing relative to her family. A gift for her too will be a pick-me-up. Ideas include diaries, books and magazines; personal care products are always welcome, like moisture creams, lip balm, nail and cuticle cream. Soft lounging garments and socks will be most appreciated as she may have had radiation therapy with subsequent sensitivity to her skin. She may have experienced hair loss and will certainly appreciate the warmth and coziness of a fleecy cap or scarf. If her heels have cracked from the chemotherapy – a frequent side effect – rich, fragrance-free foot cream will hit the mark. If she is experiencing mouth sores, a special tin of candies will help.
  • Some tips to remember when visiting: keep your personal fragrances and scented gifts – candles, flowers, to a minimum. People receiving chemotherapy are extremely sensitive to scents, and this may exacerbate their nausea or malaise generally.

Keep in mind that a woman who has been through treatment is at a different place in her journey than one who is newly-diagnosed, so adjust your assistance based on her needs. Both however, will be living with the reality that approximately 30 per cent of women diagnosed with breast cancer will have a recurrence.

Visit the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation for more information.

Elaine Webb is senior director, Health Promotion at the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

1. Canadian Cancer Society, Statistics 2015. Canadian Cancer Society, Public Health Agency of Canada, Provincial/Territorial Cancer Registries.

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