How to Talk to a Colleague With Cancer

Psychosocial oncologist Dr. Guy Pelletier gives expert advice including telling us to be concrete and action-based

Illustration by Jennifer Madole


Cancer is difficult to talk about. When an acquaintance or colleague receives a diagnosis, it can be especially hard knowing how to broach the topic and offer appropriate support. Dr. Guy Pelletier, a psychosocial oncologist at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, has been working with cancer patients and their families for 26 years. Here, Pelletier shares what he has learned about communication and offering assistance.

Q: What is the best way to approach the topic of a colleague’s cancer?

My view of support is that the more concrete and action-based it is, the better off you’re going to be. It’s not a matter of going to the colleague and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, poor you.’ Most people feel that comes across as a form of pity. And if there’s one thing people don’t want, it’s to be pitied. If you know something about your colleague’s diagnosis, or have family experience with cancer, that’s a good place to start. If you know nothing about the disease and don’t have any personal family experience of cancer, the best option I see is to sit down with the person and say, ‘What’s that like? How are you feeling?’ Generally speaking, you’ll get some kind of answer, so you build up on that.

Q: How can I ensure I’m offering appropriate support to a colleague?

One misconception people have is that they can walk up to somebody who has cancer and say, ‘Just let me know if you need something, I’ll be there.’ It’s a nice gesture, but agreeing on something specific one can do for the person struggling with cancer is better. The more direct and concrete the offer is, the more supportive it comes across. If someone is unable to mow their lawn due to a diagnosis, you could offer to come Saturday morning and do it. This is very concrete, very direct, it has a time on it, it has an objective — and that’s the kind of offer that works.

Q: What if I don’t have very much time but still want to help?

If you can’t help because you yourself are up to your eyeballs, that’s okay. Don’t make an offer you can’t keep. It’s going to be too hard on you and consequently hard on the cancer patient. Keep in mind that one of the greatest gifts you can give to anyone is the gift of your attention, especially in this day and age when sometimes people aren’t very available to listen. There are circumstances where it’s not so much a matter of doing something, it’s just a matter of being there.

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