Cancer Care in the Workplace: 5 Tips for Supporting an Employee Who Has Cancer

Cancer care in the workplace: How employers can support an employee diagnosed with cancer

According to the American Cancer Society’s 2023 Cancer Facts & Figures, cancer is the second leading cause of mortality in the U.S. The same report estimated there will be nearly two million new cancer diagnoses in 2023. Given this grim, painful reality, cancer is unavoidable not only in families and personal networks, but also in the workplace.

Cancer care in the workplace: Stats about people with cancer

While supporting an employee in navigating cancer care is an emotional challenge, it’s also a financial one—self-insured employers can spend anywhere from $120,000 to $400,000 over the course of a single employee’s journey through cancer care. Those are some big numbers.

Here’s the upside: the high—and growing—cost of cancer care is partially due to the progress that’s been made in researching the disease. Cancer patients have more (and better) options than ever before; as a result, employers are facing steeper medical bills.

In this blog post, we’ll offer practical advice for how managers and other leaders in the workplace can support team members who have been on the painful receiving end of a cancer diagnosis and need high-quality cancer care. Can you provide meaningful, compassionate assistance while also keeping your business healthy?

Yes. Here’s how.

Navigating cancer care: 5 tips for when an employee is diagnosed with cancer

If someone in your workplace receives a cancer diagnosis, compassion and kindness are key. It’s likely they’ll require time and space to process the news and plan for next steps—and to the extent that you can honor those needs, it’s best that you do.

There are, however, more specific measures you can take to ensure your employee feels supported on the journey ahead. Consider these:

1. Know the policies

Your company should be equipped with its own blueprint for helping employees navigate difficult medical situations like cancer care. An HR rep will be well-versed in those policies and procedures, but it’s not a bad idea to do some research yourself. Brush up on your organization’s employee handbook and all other available resources.

(HR and benefit leaders: This playbook will be a great resource for you in helping employees navigate cancer care.) 

These in-house policies should mention national and state-specific measures, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act. The former protects employees from being discriminated against as a result of their past or present experience with cancer. The latter stipulates that employees are entitled to time off from work to address health issues, including cancer.

Understanding the specifics of these and other relevant policies—as well as how your organization upholds them—is the first step to smooth-ish sailing for you and your employee.

2. Offer whatever workplace accommodations are possible

If there’s room to offer a flexible schedule, leave of absence, or adjustments to the employee’s physical workspace that will make them more comfortable, don’t hesitate to do so. As they plan for and go through cancer care, your employee will have to deal with many doctor appointments, as well as shifting symptoms and energy levels. Making the appropriate accommodations will keep them feeling valued, engaged, and supported.

Plus, when you can plan for those accommodations with your team ahead of time, you’ll be better prepared to allocate resources accordingly, thus minimizing waste and stress.

3. Communicate your organization’s employee benefits

It’s critical that you’re up to speed on national and company policies that are relevant to your employee’s medical situation.

The next step is to communicate that information. Be sure the employee in question knows how to access the resources they’ll need to navigate what’s coming. Confirm that they understand their insurance and the other employee benefits available to them (plus how those employee benefits can help their specific situation).

After their diagnosis, the employee is sure to feel overwhelmed, which may make it tricky for them to retain information. Don’t be afraid to over-communicate.

4. Listen and learn

Speaking of communication, now is the time to really lean into establishing an open, honest connection with the recently-diagnosed employee. It’s all about empathy and compassion.

After the employee shares their diagnosis with you, be prepared to meet them where they are. Ask what would make them feel most supported and keep their needs at the center. Find out how they would like to stay in touch about their situation as their cancer care progresses. Would they like to check in with you or HR as it feels comfortable for them? Or would they prefer for someone to be proactive about checking in? Listen to their preferences and honor them.

5. Make a plan for sharing the news with others

Once an employee has disclosed their cancer diagnosis, work with them to develop a strategy for informing other folks within the organization. Legally, employees are not required to share a diagnosis like this at the office, but if they’d like to, an HR rep or manager can help facilitate those conversations or encourage them along the way.

Your employee might also prefer to keep their news more private. If that’s the case, work with them to figure out what they—or you—can tell team members to explain changes to their schedule and other accommodations. Keeping it general might be the way to go. Consider saying something like, “[Employee Name] will be working a flexible schedule/out of the office for a few weeks due to a personal matter.”

Regardless of the plan for sharing, the employee should always be in charge of how their news is disseminated… or protected.

The way you support a team member who’s dealing with a cancer diagnosis and cancer care will impact the way they feel about your organization. Offer helpful resources, accommodate the employee whenever possible, and create empathetic lines of communication. Doing so will benefit the employee’s health and keep your business healthy in the process.

The information contained on this page is for informational purposes only. No material is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.