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3 Things Your Employee Wishes You Would Say When They Tell You They Have Cancer

You're a manager. You feel like you're a good one. Then one day, your employee tells you they have cancer, and you find yourself panicked. What do you say? How can you help? What will happen to that project you are all working on?

Cancer. 46% of cancer diagnoses occur in adults ages 25 – 64, prime working years.

If you haven't dealt with an employee with cancer,

it's just a matter of time.

So, what do you say?

In consulting with managers across industries, not knowing how to react when an employee shares their cancer diagnosis (or other health crisis) is more common than one would think. But it makes sense because most manager training doesn't deal with how to manage a health crisis, cancer, or other, at work.

Before I share with you what to say, I want to quickly share three common phrases that are NOT good to say.

What Not to Say

  1. Don't say, "If you need anything, let me."

To learn why it's not helpful, watch this video and then remove that phrase from your vocabulary

2. Don't share that story about your uncle's neighbor's aunt who had cancer twice, but everything is okay now.

Sharing a story about a stranger's cancer is not inspiring. You don't know any details: the kind of cancer, the stage of cancer, or the type of treatment. Those things matter.

3. Say, "Stay strong, be positive, you got this!"

There is nothing wrong with wanting to inspire someone with cancer, but spouting off meaningless slogans usually doesn't do that. It leaves your employee with cancer feeling like you don't understand the journey and are not interested in understanding it.

What to Say

There are many great phrases you can use when first hearing the news of an employee's cancer. Don't just read these, though. Write them down in Notes on your phone, or put them on a sticky. Remember getting the news that someone you work with could die is unsettling. And unless you've practiced these phrases repeatedly, chances are your brain is going to freeze!

Here are three of my favorite phrases:

  1. "I don't know what to say."

A cancer diagnosis is shocking. Not knowing what to say is normal, and saying that out loud shows your employee with cancer that you care about them and that they matter. All good emotions to emit that demonstrate you care.

  1. "We will do what we can to support you."

Only say this if you mean it. Many managers have uttered it then, three months into working with an employee with cancer, they feel resentful and want to fire them! That is because they haven't put together a work plan, they haven't met regularly with the employee to discuss and adjust the plan, and they haven't learned how to manage an employee with cancer. (If you have an employee with cancer and are unsure how to manage them, you can book your free strategy call here.)

  1. "I am so sorry." Followed by silence

As I said in #1, getting this news can be shocking. It can bring up all sorts of emotions in you. It is okay to say you are sorry. And depending on the inflection or the tears you are trying to hold back, this small phrase can pack a lot of meaning.

No matter what you say, be prepared to feel like it's not enough. You may feel inadequate, useless, and powerless.

Let’s be honest. As a non-medical specialist, you are powerless to cure their cancer. But as a manager and a human being, you have the power to help your employee during this scary life event.

You have a powerful and essential role to play. You ARE an important part of their journey.

Please remember that.

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