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How to support employees in cancer remission

A cancer diagnosis can be one of the single most traumatic life events faced by a person. Yet what is less widely acknowledged is the far-reaching, ongoing physical and emotional impacts of cancer.

When my husband had bowel cancer, my world fell apart at breath-taking speed. The initial diagnosis was followed swiftly by surgery and chemotherapy, leaving no room to process my feelings.

I was terrified, angry and, above all, I felt guilty at finding it hard to cope. Particularly at work.

Working with Cancer: a guidebook for HR

Six in 10 people caring for someone with cancer experience some kind of impact on their lives as a result of caring, according to figures from Macmillan Cancer Support.

I was lucky that I had a line manager who gave me as much time off as I needed and remembered to ask me how I was feeling. Above all she listened.

People respond to news about cancer in many different ways, some with more sensitivity than others.

I hear many narratives about the thoughtless comments that people can make in response to learning about someone’s cancer diagnosis.

Yet half of us will be diagnosed with cancer in our lifetime, so we all have a collective responsibility to support someone affected by cancer.

Managing cancer in the workplace: HR's role

Understanding the consequences of cancer is key.

When someone rings the bell that signifies cancer treatment has finished, they are ending one journey and about to begin another as a whole new person.

For them life is never quite going to be same again.

They may have new routines, medication for life, ongoing health problems and a change in their mental health and emotional resilience.

Yet people expect them to bounce back to 'normal'. 

For someone in remission, it’s hard enough coming to terms with a new 'me', let alone living up to everyone else’s expectations.

Post treatment is when they are likely to be struggling most, because the safety net that came with cancer has gone.

Now they are left to process raw feelings such as shock at their diagnosis, anger, guilt, grief at the loss of their old self, and the searing fear of their cancer returning.

This is when the right kind of practical and emotional support at work can make a real difference to an employee.

Cancer – giving employees the support they need

Cancer should not be a word of shame. Yet cancer patients frequently report feeling isolated when they return to work, with colleagues actively shunning them to avoid having what they perceive as a difficult conversation.

So how can we support someone who is very likely feeling alone, scared, confused and not listened to?

While there are no perfect words, don’t let the fear of saying the wrong thing keep you from saying nothing.

Try to approach conversations with empathy rather than sympathy, and avoid empty reassurances.

It is more helpful to validate their experience in the present moment, by suggesting talking about what support they might find useful.

Practice active listening, which involves focusing solely on the other person, showing that you understand what they are saying.

Ask open-ended questions, which allow the other person to take the lead in talking about their concerns.

Offer practical solutions to ensure a positive outcome by giving specific relevant signposts to help them move forwards.

A recent study that we carried out showed that 55% of cancer patients returning to work need better support. It is time that businesses step up to the mark and provide cancer-specific support by educating and training employees, to give them the skills and confidence to help impacted colleagues move forwards with their lives.

By doing so, ultimately, they will create a more resilient and productive workforce.   

Richenda Oldham is head of communications at Cancer Support UK and a certified Workplace Cancer Support Ambassador