Not knowing what to say is normal. Your colleague is the same person that they were before. They may be emotional or tired due to stress and their treatments. Try to be understanding and patient.
Supportive colleagues can ease the burden of physical and mental workloads, a lack of confidence due to time away and treatment side effects. Showing your support can be as simple as attempting to maintain the same relationship you had before they were diagnosed.
Some people may want to go on as if nothing has changed. Others may appreciate more regular communication. Let them guide the level of communication they feel comfortable with. You could let them know that you are happy to talk if and when needed. If you feel uncomfortable, you can be honest about this. Here are some ideas to help you communicate with your colleague:
- call or send a card if your colleague is away from work
- talk to them about how you can support them
- offer to help with specific tasks such as heavy lifting or errands
- avoid offering advice or false assurance; even if you have past experience with cancer
- if you feel comfortable, allow your colleague to discuss their cancer and treatment openly
- don’t always make cancer and treatment the main topic of conversation
- keep your colleague in the loop with workplace chat and discussions. This can be a good distraction for them
- make sure they are still invited to out-of-hours work related events and social occasions
- offer to drive them to appointments or help with meals.
Cancer and treatment can vary and its effects may change or last longer than initially planned. Some side effects of treatment last for a long time and the duration of treatment itself may be longer (or shorter) than expected. Try to be understanding if your colleague does not recover as quickly as first expected.
Research has shown that a supportive environment at work helps people cope with ongoing symptoms and makes it more likely that they will remain at work. Be supportive of a gradual return to a full workload, even if your colleague insists that they will be able to handle an immediate return to a normal workload and schedule.