How Can Business Leaders Show Up for Their Employees Who Get a Cancer Diagnosis?

A survivor’s experience, from the day of her diagnosis and how she shared that diagnosis with her manager and with the wider executive team

by Sarah McDonald

After I returned to work, two work friends of mine asked me if I would be willing to talk about my cancer diagnosis at a management training day they were hosting. They hoped that by my speaking publicly about what could be an awkward work situation, they could challenge these people managers to think deeply about how to lead with empathy and human-ness. 

I was so excited that my story was so useful to the managers I spoke with …

Show up as a human first, people manager/leader second. My No. 1 advice to people managers and leaders who have a teammate who has been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease is to start with “I am so sorry you are going through this. It must be so hard.” I find these words work in almost any stressful life situation. If asked in a genuine way, these words are a step toward the leader acknowledging the stress and gravity of the situation the employee is in. They are critical to helping the employee feel seen in a very human way.

Listen but respect the employee’s privacy. Leaders should seek to create a safe space for this person to open up about what is going on. And if the person doesn’t open up — perhaps because they are too scared to speak about it or are afraid that if they speak about it, they might cry — take the cue from that person. If they want to talk, let them talk. If they don’t want to talk, respect that silence. 

Leaders would do well to remember that it is never appropriate to discuss the employee’s situation with any other member of the team (other than the HR professional). Some employees might want their leader to tell the rest of the team what is going on; others may absolutely want it kept private.

Inquire and assure. Next, a leader might say, “I want you to know that I (we) care about you and want to be supportive of you while you undergo your treatments. Do you have an idea yet of what that might look like? If not, that’s totally fine, but I want you to know that it is our intention to support you to the best of our ability during this time.” 

It is very possible that the person with cancer doesn’t yet know what their treatments will look like — whether they’ll be able to work while undergoing treatment and/or what their outcome will be. That is a terrifying place for any human to be in. I would argue that a leader’s goal in this moment is simply to convey to this other human that the company will figure it out. I don’t believe leaders should make promises to employees without the input of HR, but removing the fear of loss of employment is the single greatest gift you can give this other human while they navigate expensive scans, tests, surgeries and treatments. 

And listen, I know employment situations and expectations may differ from company to company based upon industry or job responsibilities. But I do believe in our first-world country, we need to remove the stress associated with fear of loss of job (income) and insurance coverage for people who receive a life-threatening diagnosis.

Discuss what the plan might be while they’re away. Leaders would do well to ask for employee input in order to signal to the employee that his/her opinion is still valued regardless of diagnosis or potential time away from the office. Some employees will have a strong opinion as to how they believe their work should be handled while they are away. Others may not have spent any time thinking about this as they are so consumed by their diagnosis and contemplation of what their treatment future might look like. Leaders should be prepared to take their signal from the employee. If appropriate, the leader might want to share ideas s/he has about how the work will be handled so that the employee feels less stress associated with their time away — knowing that their work will be covered while they are out. 

Offer to check in. Finally, a leader might say, “I would love to occasionally check in on you over the next couple of weeks and months to see how you are doing — and ask if there is anything (more) we can be doing to support you. Would that be okay?” 

A life-threatening diagnosis is a very isolating event. An offer to check in occasionally can truly be a lifeline to the isolation of a cancer diagnosis. As long as the offer to check in is given with the pure intention of truly checking in on the well-being of another human, I think it can and will be received well.  

Sarah E. McDonald is two-time cancer survivor and one-time mother of daughter Rory. She’s spent the majority of her 30-year career in the technology industry, with 14 years at eBay, including the period while she was battling cancer. The Cancer Channel is her first book.

In a voice that will make readers feel they’ve met a new, fun friend, McDonald shares in vivid detail the events surrounding her year of cancer treatments. She touches on both the terror and the humor that can be found in the little moments that are part of fighting this awful disease. As a survivor and a champion determined to foster better understanding of the do’s and don’ts with cancer patients, she provides a story of hope to all who read this.

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