'Everything will be ok' | How we're failing to support employees with cancer

Deep Dive Category

How we're failing to support employees with cancer

Everyone dreads that moment. The instance that kicked off the TV series Breaking Bad; the second that everything changes and you realise your own body has betrayed you: “I’m afraid you have cancer”. Surely everyone will rally around you? Unfortunately, for many workers, that’s not the case...

World Cancer Day is on 4 February every year, and with cancer rates rising worldwide in people under 50, according to multiple studies – one from Brigham & Women’s Hospital spanned 12 years and 14 types of cancer and found a startling rise in cases – it’s high time employers turned their HR planning to this disease that can impact anyone.

HR Grapevine Senior Editor, Sarah Williams, shares her cancer journey in the world of work and relationships, and explores what employers can do to support workers who are diagnosed.


When I was diagnosed with Stage 1 cancer during the second lockdown, I already knew I had it. Not because of any glaring symptoms, but because firstly, I know my body and could simply feel something was off. And secondly, because I’d had some unusual test results. But unfortunately, with more than a decade of NHS underfunding as well as the pandemic, I had to wait 14 months (and cause an unholy ruckus in my GP surgery) to even have the first follow-up appointment.

By that time, I had Stage 1 cancer. And I’m lucky. Sure, it was tough to find out that at literally a cellular level, I wasn’t safe in my own skin. But from the moment of my diagnosis the whole way through to the follow-up care which I am still undergoing, both the NHS staff and Macmillan staff have been amazing. And it was caught early, and was treatable via surgery, rather than intensive radiotherapy.

I am, as of time of publishing, living cancer-free.

Man, it feels good to type that.

Why are people so weird about cancer?

The reactions from friends, family, my then-partner and my colleagues (including my line manager and the team I managed) all said variations on the same theme: “I’m so sorry”, “It’s nothing to worry about, it’ll be fine”, and “You’re the strongest woman I’ve ever met – you’ll get through this.”

The first one is fine. The second one is bizarre – we have no idea how the future will go, or what will happen. Furthermore, by assuring someone that “everything will be alright”, we’re not only comforting ourselves, rather than them – we’re also creating a false sense of assurance that may mean that bad news hits the sick person harder than it would have otherwise.

The third one may sound comforting, but what it conveys is: “Woman up. Be tough. You got this.” But what if the person feels weak? What if they don’t “got this”? What if, instead, they feel lost, confused and in need of comfort? And that’s before we even get to the physical affects of cancer.

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