How to Support a Colleague with Breast Cancer

According to Cancer Research, there are around 55,900 new breast cancer cases in the UK every year, which is more than 150 every day. With 1 in 7 women being diagnosed with breast cancer, it's not surprising that many employees are faced with the devastation of one of their own team members becoming ill. No matter how common this diagnosis may be, it's never easy news to hear, and it's never an easy situation to navigate.

When a work colleague is diagnosed with cancer, it can be hard to know what to say and how to be supportive, especially because breast cancer diagnosis and treatment affects each person differently. How your colleague is dealing with their diagnosis is a personal thing, so the best way to help them is to follow their lead. Some breast cancer patients prefer to take time off during their treatment so that they can rest and recover, while others choose to keep working throughout their treatment to maintain a sense of normalcy, keep busy, and stay connected with their peers.

We've put together some helpful suggestions of ways that you can support your colleague, no matter their decision.

If Your Colleague is Taking Time Off

  • Organize a pre-made meal subscription from one of the many companies across the UK, such as Balance Box or Gusto. You could also organise grocery hauls for the patient via any of the grocery stores that offer delivery services. This will ensure your colleague is well fed and nourished and has one less thing to worry about.
  • Help with transport where possible or create a schedule where colleagues can regularly offer to provide transport for the patient, as well as keep them company during treatment.
  • Arrange to help with errands/babysitting/child minding/pet sitting/housework and gardening.
  • Send a care package with a curation of thoughtful and comforting items. This will help your colleague to feel cared for and provide them with comfort.
  • Offer to send weekly updates to keep them in the loop – this can be a casual, catch-up style chat.
  • If they're feeling up to it, host a ‘weekly huddle' that they can join virtually to catch up with everyone on their team and stay connected.
  • Donate vacation days. Talk to your human resources department and see if it's possible to donate some of your vacation days to your colleague.

If Your Colleague is Staying On

  • If you're her manager, be sure to check whether she'd like others to know about her diagnosis and be accommodating with time off for doctor's appointments, tests and treatment.
  • To support your colleague during time off while undergoing treatment, why not create a plan detailing who, what, when, and how their workload can be covered? This will provide her with peace of mind, while providing you and the rest of the team with clarity.
  • Keep your colleague in the loop on important projects. It's best to choose one person in the team who will keep your colleague updated, rather than several people bombarding her. Ask her when (between what hours) and how (email, text) is best to keep in touch.
  • Invite her to social events even if she's not at work. Whether or not she's able to attend, at least she'll feel included and still part of the team.
  • When your colleague returns to work after medical leave, reassure her that you're there to help. Be mindful and understanding of the fact that she may have a lower capacity than before.
  • Treat her normally but let her know you understand that she may be working in challenging circumstances. Don't be afraid to ask how she's feeling and give her the opportunity to talk if she wants to.
  • Talk, talk, talk! Your colleague will likely appreciate all kinds of distractions from her treatment journey. You can chat about work or arrange some virtual or in-person lunch dates (if she's up for it).

We acknowledge that breast cancer can occur in both men and women, however, for the purpose of this particular article in connection with Women's Health, we have used she/her pronouns.

External Resources

Breast Cancer Research UK

Breast Cancer NHS

Breast cancer Now

Breast Cancer UK