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Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally, accounting for an estimated 9.6 million deaths every year, or one in every six deaths, according to the World Health Organization. How are your employees, or co-workers, equipped to provide or receive the right emotional support?  

According to the American Cancer Society, studies have shown that strong emotional support can make an incredibly positive difference to navigating a cancer journey. In the face of a cancer diagnosis, both providing and receiving support can help employees and employers to cope. It's also crucial to assist those in the work environment to better adjust to the changes cancer brings to their lives.

Social support has been shown to be key in coping with cancer and cancer treatment, adds Dr Vanessa Marais, a clinical psychologist who specialises in cancer, oncology, depression and anxiety. “Recent studies have clearly demonstrated that when dealing with cancer, the presence of supportive interpersonal relationships has the potential to influence your well-being in both survivorship as well as improved mental health-related quality of life. It can also help a co-worker to stay focussed, to believe in themselves and to still feel accepted and appreciated”. 

Although an employee is not legally required to inform their employer on diagnosis, sharing the information to access support in their duties, medical and insurance cover – and emotional support – could be a good idea, especially during treatment and recovery.

The first key is to listen.

“Looking back ten years,” says cancer survivor Samantha Brown, “if there is one thing I would change it would be to have communicated more. Honest communication is needed to clear the air of fear, frustration, helplessness and concern. It will give you, as the cancer patient, an opportunity to tell others what you need, and you owe this to yourself – and to them.”

Employers and co-workers could feel powerless about how to help staff members or colleagues, explains clinical psychologist Dr Colinda Linde. “Research has shown that a support system is one of the most important factors when it comes to coping with treatment, recovery and healing. Allowing a co-worker to support you emotionally and practically, as well as with information gathering, will actually help them too. It gives them micro-tasks to do, which staves off feelings of being immobilised or hysterical.”

How those in need can ask for help

For many people this is a tough task, Dr Linde concedes. However, certain things may require the sharing of information: administrative consideration, sick leave for treatment, hospitalisation, general sick days and accommodation in the workplace. The space should be safe and comfortable. “Especially if a person has always regarded themselves as strong and fiercely independent. However, asking for help is anything but a sign of weakness. Practical support, emotional support or simply for someone to hear what they’re saying will make a huge difference in the cancer journey,” says Dr Linde.

Those who need support should never feel guilty about getting the support, adds Dr Marais, “Guilt will only contribute to unnecessary feelings of depression, while assistance with practical chores, for example, will give someone the space and time to heal.”

Dr Marais offers the following tips on how to ask for help:

  • Be brief, specific and honest. For example: "I need to see the doctor today because I am not feeling 100% energised. Could you please help me with this request?"
  • Verbalise feelings. It helps to have a safe space to release these fears without judgment or advice being imposed on the person.
  • Clearly explain what you need, for example, simply having someone to just be there and listen without trying to fix anything. "I just need to voice these fears out aloud, without you or anyone freaking out, telling me to be positive or trying to distract me".
What about getting back to work?

Cancer recovery rates mean that people can return to work and be as economically active as they were before diagnosis.

However, those around a cancer survivor should educate themselves about possible side effects of treatment, including pain, fatigue, nausea and more. Medical appointments will be routine, or frequent, depending on the person. 

One way of supporting employees is to offer financial education, particularly around insurance options, which may also give them time off to recover.

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