More than 40 percent of cancer cases occur in people of working age (18–65), and research shows that about 80 percent of people with cancer return to work after diagnosis. Holding a job while undergoing treatment can be physically and mentally exhausting, yet maintaining a professional identity and keeping life as normal as possible help many to cope.
Don’t be surprised if you are rendered speechless upon first hearing that a member of your team has cancer. Simple phrases expressing concern without creating drama can help break the ice, such as “I’m sorry this is happening,” or “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you.” Then, look for cues on how to proceed. Some people will open up and talk about their condition, while others will prefer to stay private. Respect their wishes.
As a manager, you may be wondering how this will affect work performance. Unfortunately, the person probably cannot give you many solid answers, as patients react to treatment differently. Find out whether there is a block of time the person will need to be off work, but also be prepared to deal with unexpected schedule changes and days when he or she does not feel well. Understanding and flexibility are two of the greatest gifts a leader can give someone in this situation.
Be upfront in asking how much information should be shared with the rest of the staff. Some people are comfortable revealing the diagnosis; others prefer to be vague. Ask for permission before breaking any news. You could offer to update colleagues regularly so that the person undergoing treatment does not need to constantly repeat his or her story.
As strange as it might sound, one of the best things you can do is make office life as routine as possible. Cancer has thrown the person a major curveball, and going about business as usual can provide a reprieve from worrying and help him or her feel that cancer hasn’t changed everything.