October 2023

What to say to a colleague diagnosed with cancer

Knowing what to say to a colleague diagnosed with cancer can be tricky to navigate.

You want to show them your care and support as they cope with a serious illness. But what are the right words in a context where you have to maintain professionalism?

Sometimes, well-intentioned conversations might end up with your colleague or employee feeling hurt instead. But this should not mean that we avoid contact and conversations with our colleagues with cancer - they need our support.

To avoid such misunderstandings, here are some tips on expressing your support to a co-worker diagnosed with cancer in a thoughtful way:

1. Listen

We all have a natural desire to comfort and make others feel better with our words. But instead of being too preoccupied with saying the right or wrong thing, sometimes the best thing you can do for someone with cancer is to listen instead. A good thing to remember is that we have two ears and one mouth - we should listen twice as much as we speak! Checking in with people going through a cancer journey can be in person, but also messages of support to let them know you are thinking of them.

Use questions that show you’re genuinely interested in learning about what the person with cancer is going through.

Here are some phrases that can help open up the conversation:

  • “I’m sorry to hear about what’s happening. How are you doing?”
  • “I’m not sure what to say. But I’m here if you need anything - please let me know.”
  • “I’ve been thinking about your situation. How are you going with everything?”

Once you’ve got the conversation going, actively listen and be present as your co-worker expresses their feelings about their cancer journey. You don’t necessarily have to make things better or have all the answers. Acknowledging that this is and will be hard, validating their emotions and communicating in an empathetic and compassionate way will help someone feel cared for and assist in supporting their mental health.

2. Let the person take the lead

As you begin to speak to your co-worker, let them take the lead on how much they want to share about their cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment. Some may want to share details, while others may prefer to keep things private.

This often depends on the type of relationship they have with you. A colleague you’ve worked with for over 10 years may be willing to open up more compared to a co-worker from another department you hardly see.

Here are some phrases to help you keep the conversation open without being too intrusive:

  • “How are you feeling? I’ve got time to sit down and have a chat if you want to talk about anything…..”
  • “I can see things have been tough for you recently. Do you want to have a talk about how things are going?”

If they decline to share more with you, don’t take it personally. If you feel helpless in this situation, just remember that you can support your colleague in other ways.

3. Give specific support

Apart from giving a listening ear to your co-worker who has cancer, supporting them might come in the form of practical help with their work responsibilities. For your colleague, it can be overwhelming having to handle a new treatment schedule and doctor appointments on top of work commitments.

The best way to offer practical support in such situations is to do it in a specific way.

Try saying things like:

  • “Let me know if you’d like help with the presentation slides”
  • “I’m heading to the conference as well. Do you need a ride there?”
  • “Let’s discuss some possible adjustments to your schedule to accommodate your medical appointments.” (This is for situations where it’s your employee who has cancer)

This is more likely to get a positive response than something general like “Let me know if you need help with anything”.

If it’s appropriate, you can ask if they have a support system outside of work or if they need help finding one. Osara Health provides a personalized coaching program that helps cancer patients and caregivers improve health and wellbeing.

Learn more about Osara Health's Cancer Coach Program

What NOT to say to a colleague diagnosed with cancer

In addition to knowing what to say, it’s also just as important to know which things aren’t helpful.


  • Probing too much if you sense that they’re not willing to share more.
  • Making assumptions about their experience. Saying “I know how you feel” may not be helpful because everyone has their own feelings and you can’t really know what’s going on for them.
  • Telling them about other people you know (like a family member) who had cancer. Everyone’s experiences are different.
  • Commenting about their appearance. This can make your co-worker feel self-conscious about changes in the way they look.
  • Saying things that are overly positive (like “Cheer up, everything will be fine”) as it can feel like you’re minimising what they’re going through.

Listening with empathy can go a long way

It’s understandable that you may feel awkward or unsure about what to say to a colleague who’s a cancer patient. When in doubt, just remember that you can make a positive impact on their journey with cancer by simply listening, respecting boundaries, and showing empathy. This will help the person feel supported and heard as you provide a safe space for them to discuss their experience.