It is awkward. You run into a co-worker going through cancer and you don’t know what to say. I have been there too – on both sides of that uncomfortable moment. I remember vividly one day walking into the Department office and seeing the Administrative Assistant who had been away for weeks during her breast cancer treatment. She had returned to work, and was clearly sporting a wig but looked pretty well otherwise. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. Well, nothing about what she was going through. Even though I cared, and in hindsight all of these years later, I wish that I had just managed to say the right supportive thing. But I didn’t. Most of us have had these moments of little regrets.
That’s why I felt such compassion for my colleagues when they too didn’t know what to say to me. I went through two cancers and multiple surgeries in a 5 year span, each time returning to work as soon as possible. I appreciated any and all comments, understanding that they came from a place of caring and a heartfelt desire to show support. Even if the words themselves and tone grated on me. Just having colleagues acknowledge what I was going through was so important.
Sometimes in my group of cancer-buddies (also known as boobsome buddies or breast friends, guess what type of cancer we had…) we would joke about the tone of “How are you?”, head tilted to the side, emphasis on “are”, trailing off “you”. It was surprising how formulaic it became. Other comments were also predictable, either “You look great!” or an unwelcome story about their aches and pains in an attempt to relate. Either way, I let it all slide. Any comment was better than no comment.
To have no acknowledgement of the huge battle that I was waging, how my life had been turned upside down, how every day brought new challenges, how we were just holding it together. To not acknowledge that in some way was awful to me. It felt as though it was denying my truth, my reality…my life and death struggle.
So, my advice to you is simple. Acknowledge what they are going through in some simple, basic way – even if it is, with your head tilted to the side, “How are you?” Then just let the other person be the guide. They will share what they need to share with you in that moment. Perhaps it is nothing more than, “Alright, thanks for asking.” After all, everyone likes to have a normal conversation now and then, even when going through serious sh*t. Don’t pry further, just be open. Listen. Give them space to share if they need to. Take your time in this moment of shared humanity. If you do that, you have done well.
I thank you. And if your conscience is anything like mine, it will thank you too. You will know that you made the boldest of moves, showing up as a human being to another human being that you work alongside. Thank you for that.