Courageous Conversations and Cancer in the Workplace

On World Cancer Day, we want to make it easier to talk about cancer in the workplace. Our colleague Sarah Kay – Inclusion and Diversity consultant, draws from her own experiences to explain why we need to discuss this topic at work and shares tips on how to talk to someone affected by cancer.

Scroll down to read what Sarah has to say...

Every two minutes, someone in the UK is diagnosed with cancer. It’s hard to fully comprehend this statistic when you think of how many people that will be in the time it takes us to watch one of our favourite episodes on Netflix, cook our dinner or do a weekly food shop. Every two minutes, someone’s life is dramatically changed.

For individuals who are diagnosed with cancer, their lives can be impacted in many ways ranging from the worry and anxiety they’re feeling, the treatment they may need and it’s side affects, to the more practical aspects of being able to work and carry on doing the things they enjoy. It’s also not just the individual with the diagnosis who is affected. It can have a huge impact on their family, friends and colleagues. But, for both the individual and their loved ones, they face the additional challenge of how to talk about it.

Macmillian Cancer Support estimate that over 125,000 people of workplace age are diagnosed with cancer every year in the UK, so it is important to be aware of, and understand the importance, of talking about it. There is still stigma around the ‘C word’ which can make it difficult for people to talk about. From personal experience, when my Dad was diagnosed with cancer, my friends and colleagues seemed to have two different approaches. Some got it just right, they would ask how he was, how I was, offer support and made it really easy for me to talk about what was going on and how I was feeling. There were those who found it hard to talk to me at that time. Maybe they were worried about me getting upset or saying the wrong thing, but it was tough to feel like I was being avoided, especially when I probably needed support more than ever.

According to Cancer Research UK, one in two of us will have cancer in our lifetime. Whether it’s someone directly or indirectly impacted, chances are we’re going to know someone affected by it which is why it’s so important we get talking and don’t shy away from these conversations.  

The benefits to talking about cancer far outweigh any potential awkwardness or fear of getting things wrong. It can give you a much greater understanding of someone’s experience. It’s a good way to find out how they’re really feeling rather than guessing and we can find out how to support the individual. Through normalising conversations about cancer, we can help raise awareness and reduce the stigma that still exists.

Here are some tips on how to talk to someone affected by cancer:

  • Don’t ignore them – it can be tricky to know what to say but the worst thing you can do is avoid the person. It’s even ok to say ‘I don’t know what to say’ – just make sure you’re there for them.
  • Take your cues from the individual – ask if they would like to talk about it. It’s best to allow them to decide when they’d like to talk and how much they’d like to share.
  • Actively listen – give your full attention avoiding distractions, don’t try and rush the conversation.
  • Don’t minimise their experience – don’t say things like ‘don’t worry, it’ll be fine’ or ‘I know just how you feel’. Let them talk about their fears and concerns, even if it’s uncomfortable to hear.
  • Talk about topics other than cancer – this provides a sense of balance and can give you and the individual a break from difficult conversations.
  • Ask if you can help with practical support – can you do some shopping for them, look after a pet, drive them to an appointment? It’s better to offer your support than just say ‘let me know if I can help at all’. It might be difficult for them to ask for help.