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Three Things NOT to Say to a Coworker About Their Illness

02/06/2014 12:22 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2014

I don't think anyone wakes up one day and says, "I think I'll be sick today," unless they just want to pretend and take a day off. On the contrary, most of us want to wake up feeling vibrant, strong, capable, happy, and go off and do meaningful work and make a decent wage.

Sometimes, however, we do wake up just not in a good space. Perhaps it was the food we ate, the drink we drank, the flu that's going around. So, we stay home from work. Other times, however, there's something going on that we just can't shake. Something serious, maybe catastrophic.

Here are two scenarios I know of personally right now.

1) An executive, with a "charmed life" -- great job, wonderful wife and kids, affluent. Some people would look inside and think their life was magical. His wife goes for a standard checkup. Soon after, she is diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. By their own admission, they've never had to deal with adversity. They are ill equipped. She tries to work through all the treatment. He is so preoccupied and fearful, that he drops down to performing (as a high investor) and eliminates his "management" of others to have more time with his wife and family. However, he's not handling it well. He's wondering when the next shoe will drop. He contacts a close friend and asks some questions about how to handle this. He's definitely out of his comfort zone. He also realizes that no one else at work knows how to talk with him or be supportive.

2) A woman in her 40s is diagnosed with breast cancer (yes, it's insidious). She has two teenaged children and a husband. She lives in an affluent home. All is handled well and she goes into remission. Then, five years later that the cancer has spread to her brain. She has surgery. All is well. Six months later, it is back. She'll need more surgery. She is beside herself, fearful, pushing her loved ones away, angry. How does her husband continue to go to work every day, be productive and yet, love and support his very ill wife?

In both of these instances, the husbands work and fortunately are physically able to continue to show up everyday, bring home the bacon. But, then, they return at night to be supportive to their family. In the first scenario, the wife is continuing to work each day as well.

You work with these people. You know something is going on. They miss quite a bit of work. In the case of the woman in scenario #1, she shows up but she's not her usual self. She's undergoing treatment, her hair has fallen out, she's wearing a wig. Her energy is drained.

In all cases -- you wonder what to say, how to communicate and comfort. You sometimes find yourself avoiding being alone with them so you don't have to figure it out.

Here are three simple rules about what NOT to say:

1. "How are you doing?" or How are you feeling?

Why not ask that? Well, maybe because whatever they say won't be accurate. They're trying to keep their spirits up AND they want to protect you by pretending they're doing well.

2. "How is your family coping?" That's not really your business to ask and it makes them feel even more guilty for all that they feel they're imposing on them anyhow.

3. "So, what are your next steps?" Again, let them tell you that if they want to... don't insinuate.

So, with these "not" to say suggestions, what CAN you say instead?

1. "Hey I'm here if you want to talk." That way you leave it entirely up to them to reach out when they are ready and you don't impose any expectations or make them uncomfortable.

2. "Please let me know if there is something you need that I can help with." Again, you offer and it's up to them.

3. "I'm up for doing something fun, if you want to hang out." They hear that you're open to spending time in a good way and will remember the offer. Hanging out is a "normal" thing to do and they want to feel normal in a tough situation.

We, the generic "we" think we know how to approach people dealing with cancer or major illness. However, we often run the other direction because we fear that we will say the wrong thing. When we do that, the person involved knows it and feels worse. They don't want you to be uncomfortable. So, keep it light.

I hope you will follow these tips. I'll have more for you the next time.

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