Don’t ask a coworker any of these 10 awkward questions about their cancer

by Lauren Tedaldi, PhD

Graphic of a clenched red fist against a dark brown surface. Image for an article on what to say to a coworker with cancer / what to say to a colleague diagnosed with cancer.
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Go on, say it. I dare you.

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©Sweet Lana / Adobe Stock

What to say to a coworker who has cancer?

Sometimes people ask questions and make sweeping statements about cancer to avoid what they think is an awkward silence. This silence can quite easily descend into something much worse: awkward conversations. Rather than tell you what to say to a coworker with cancer, I am going list ten things NOT to say. If you avoid these, pretty anything else you say will be fine.

What is the worst thing about the awkward conversation?

When I am feeling strong, I usually have the energy to fake-smile it out and nod. But when I am feeling really low or ill, or worried or anxious (or just low and ill and worried and anxious), those are the times an ill-thought or an ill-timed question can keep me awake at night. Like a badly-timed burrito too close to bedtime. Mental indigestion, if you like.

So what’s better? The awkward silence or awkward conversation?

Maybe you don’t have to choose what to say to a coworker who has cancer. With a bit of forethought, you can actually have a casual chat about nothing or a serious chat about everything. But one where nobody is left crying in a toilet cubicle.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, and throughout my treatment, the seemingly unending slew of tosh people would say to me or advise me was exhausting. These days I’m a little better. But mostly just more experienced at the tosh-chat. I have the energy to find it just mildly irritating, on a good day. But, on a bad day, these things still make me cry on the tube, or curl up, deep-breathing in an empty room in the office, just to find room to…well, breathe.


Read moreLaying bare the emotions of talking about cancer


The cancer rollercoaster

I am lucky. There came a point in my cancer rollercoaster, where I started to return to my old life. [By-the-way, I don’t use the word journey when I talk about my cancer. Why? Because, apart from being killed by the TV talent show, ‘journey’ suggests you know where you are going, and with cancer, I don’t. Also, for me, rollercoaster has more of the uppy-downy-scream-for-your-life aspects of cancer I’m experiencing.]

For some people with cancer, including me, this might be returning to work. And at work we stumble into Cancer Chat. It’s hard for anyone to know what to say to a coworker who has cancer, and there are times when I’m happy to go in to the details of my life-changing, aspiration-ending, treatment. But there will undoubtedly be plenty of times when I won’t. Instead, here are some things you shouldn’t say.

“Would you casually bring up someone's fungal toe infection at every moment? No? Don't' do it for cancer then, please, thank you.”

Some advice – what to say to a coworker has cancer?

Are you better?

Eurgh. This is THE WORST thing to say to a coworker who has cancer because for most people, maybe all (?). The answer is never ‘Yes, pass the milk.’ It might be a ‘Maybe,’ it could be a ‘Probably.’ But it could just as likely be ‘No.’ I don’t think any oncologist says “You’re better” or “cured” or anything so final because they just don’t know. Which means we don’t know. Which is scary as hell.

And if you are sometimes asking, ‘who’s had cancer,’ over the communal coffee station, in the middle of a crowded office, you should be prepared for tears. And maybe something thrown at you; a stapler perhaps? Even if I think I am ‘better,’ I don’t think I’ll ever say the words out loud, it just tempts fate. And fate is a bit of a cow.

I genuinely hate this question because it only serves to make the Asker feel better if the answer is “Yes” (and you’ve lied) and it makes everyone else feel like shit. Don’t be this person.

Are you in remission?

In the last two years, I’ve seen (just off the top of my head): five oncologists, six surgeons and six breast care nurses and I’ve never, ever heard a medical professional use the word Remission. I don’t know whether it’s an Americanism, from films or soaps or just not related to my cancer but it’s up there with “are you better” – people just want to hear “yes” so that they can move on to telling you how good Black Panther was at the cinema.

If the answer is No, what the hell are you going to say then?

What are your plans now?

In between impromptu medical emergencies (my favorite kind), I’m trying to claw my way up to working 4 days a week, and it makes me feel incredibly lame when people ask questions about my career trajectory. Like I should be moving on now and have my 5-year plan all ready to go.

I’d like to go three months without calling the oncology helpline and being rushed to my surgeons’ waiting room with another complication. I’d like to find a way to decide if we should/could have more children. I’d like to be alive in 5 years.

Beyond that, I’m finding it hard to plan. But still getting anxious that I’m finding it hard to plan. So at least that’s reliable.

Can/Will you have more kids?

While I’m here, I’ll touch on the kids question, although I could write and write (and write) on this one. Maybe I will later.

I’ve always hated being asked questions like this. Just as I always hated being asked about weddings when I would be with my long-term boyfriend (now husband) but now it’s tinged with so much ‘extra.’ With no desperate plans for 5 kids and a dog on a farm, we’d thought we’d just ‘see how we go’ after one child. But now we have to really *think* about it.

After cancer, you have to deal with the fact that your fertility may have taken a severe pounding from chemo and may never recover enough to have children. As a woman, if my ovaries recover, even just enough, I’m on a fast track for menopause (again, due to chemo), shortening my child-bearing years so (if we want children) we should probably start trying sooner rather than later.

But my chance of another cancer is much higher in the next 3 years, so we should probably wait a bit.

But I’ll need my ovaries removed pretty soon to avoid getting ovarian cancer so I should probably get on with it.

But I’m on a clinical trial until the summer so I’ll need to wait.

But it might take a while to get pregnant as I’m in my mid-thirties now so maybe we should ‘try’.

But I’ve been in a hospital ‘patient’ in one way or another for over three years so can’t I please just have a F&*%INGBREAK!!

So, yes, Jim from Accounts, I might want more kids, but it’s complicated so piss off and just pass the communal milk. Red top, please.

Unsolicited advice

From vitamins and minerals to probiotics and scalp treatments, there is almost nothing that I have not been offered by the totally unqualified. And, while I know, it’s done from love (and a bit of smug-I-know-about-cancer-ness), that makes it no less annoying. In fact, it’s sometimes worse as I don’t want to be rude to people who do things out of love. Oh, and some of your advice, like probiotics and scalp treatments, could actually make things worse.

And I’m not just talking about dietary advice, here. No, people give me surgical advice on the regular. People I wouldn’t trust to fill out my library card change-of-address form (guess what I did this week). Even if you have been through something similar and you probably haven’t (my situation is rare, and my complications are getting into statistical-anomaly status). If I have taken the mammoth step of involving you in my healthcare planning, please do wade in but if not, do not come to me with phrases like “if you don’t need them, whip them out!!” And “It’s just a free boob job, isn’t it.”

Getting surgery has immediate and lifelong implications. If you are not a healthcare professional, in fact, scrap that, if you are not a surgical-based health care professional, get out of my office (I have no office. I barely have a desk).

You should fundraise!

I’ve been lucky enough to be the recipient of some great help. Blessed. From the free (for now) NHS treatment, including wigs and clinical trials, to charity help in the form of massages and counseling. My cancer center was my safe space for a long time, and I thought that I would volunteer at the center and fundraise after. But I haven’t. This says more about me than my cancer, but I’ve been able to ‘enjoy’ the limited expectations of someone with serious illness recently – the thought of immersing the little time I have that is not wholly focussed on cancer back in to cancer freaks me out. If you really think I should fundraise, feel free to do it on my behalf.

How do they know they got it all?

They don’t. They just know that they can’t find it. A bit like when your mother-in-law is coming round and you think everywhere is clean but then you find out she’s cleaned the microwave and you think it was clean but you. Just. Can’t. Remember. There could be something lurking anywhere. Oh, and for me, there are no scans, no screens, and no checks. The only way I’ll know if I have cancer again is if I get symptoms as vague as ‘pain,’ ‘bloating’ and ‘tiredness.’

Watching an Asker’s face change from non-commital cheer to dread when I tell them I could very well still have cancer, and it could be worse this time, is almost worth putting up with the question. Almost.

Did they get it all, then?

The answer is ‘No-one really knows. Maybe.’

Are you afraid it will come back?

Yes. All the time. Next.

What are the chances it could come back?

Really, Jim, you want to do this now?

Do you really want to know all the details?

Fundamentally, what I’m saying is think about about what to say to a coworker who has cancer And, if the answer could potentially involve someone feeling like they need to disclose private, personal and you-just-don’t-need-to-know information, just stick with something neutral. Because sometimes we end up saying things just to make you feel better and we feel worse. And I’m almost sure that’s not what you wanted.

Would you casually bring up someone’s fungal toe infection at every moment? No? Don’t’ do it for cancer then, please, thank you.

If you can’t think of anything, “I heard that Black Panther film is good…” Go with that.

“I suppose I should mention, a lot of this will be personal to me and I’m sure some people love being asked inappropriate shit at inconvenient times by Jim from Accounting. Maybe.” Lauren Tedaldi, author of “What to say to a coworker who has cancer.”

Article by Lauren Tedaldi, PhD

Lauren Tedaldi writes about her life as a young(ish) mother, with cancer, a job, and increasingly unruly hair.

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