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One of my coworkers in the department whom I know of but don't interact with much has been diagnosed with cancer. I only knew about this because of a confidant who made me promise not to tell. Essentially, the coworker in question has only told 2-3 of his closest colleagues about the illness.

Recently, the coworker must have undergone chemotherapy, because there is a clear physical change--hair loss, tiredness, pale, etc. I feel really bad for him and want to approach him to offer condolences. However, I wasn't supposed to know in the first place, and don't want him to feel uncomfortable.

In cases like these, do you just gloss over it? Should you act as if everything is fine, even when it's clear he doesn't look well?

Sorry if this isn't the best place to post about this, but wanted to hear from a professional standpoint if approaching is the right thing to do.

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    What country/culture? If you didn't know it was cancer and just saw this physical degradation in a person, in some cultures it would be appropriate to express concern over his health and in others it wouldn't. – Myles Apr 10 '17 at 18:10
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    "Condolences" probably aren't what they need. IF you say anything at all, limit it to "We don't have to talk about anything you don't want to, but I just want you to know that I'm here to support you." Leave it at that and never bring it up again until they do. If they're not a close acquaintance, it probably won't, but I feel like you'll have fulfilled your personal obligation to express concern as well as social/cultural obligations to care about your acquaintances. (This is west specific. I don't know anything about the customs in other regions) – sleddog Apr 10 '17 at 18:51
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    The best way to show empathy for someone is to listen, not talk. My suggestion is to not bring up his illness at all, instead just approach him and make small talk (how's the family, etc). If he starts opening up to you, about his sickness or something vague or anything really, just listen. Don't talk about your own experiences or offer advice unless he asks. If he doesn't open up, don't insist. – Tuma Apr 10 '17 at 19:28
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    On a related point -- "a confidant who made me promise not to tell" -- Watch out for this person. Don't ever ever tell him anything you want kept private. (He may be useful, though, as a deniable covert broadcast channel.) He is not your friend. – A. I. Breveleri Apr 10 '17 at 21:48
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    @A.I.Breveleri: and furthermore, next time that person says, "I've got something to tell you in confidence", politely decline. – Steve Jessop Apr 11 '17 at 17:37
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I feel really bad for him and want to approach him to offer condolences. However, I wasn't supposed to know in the first place, and don't want him to feel uncomfortable.

If this coworker had wanted you to know, he would have told you.

Thus, you must hold your comments to yourself until such time as he chooses to make things public (if he does at all).

Just be your normal kind, thoughtful self toward him, and toward everyone else. You never know who has a serious issue but hasn't shared it with your circle of friends.

And as @DavidK wisely points out, don't go around telling anyone else the news you weren't supposed to know in the first place.

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    Difficult as it may be for you, this is the correct advice. Trust me, as a person who is going through precisely this and until recently had told only a handful of people. Being treated as though you were still normal is something you really crave when you are far, far from normal. When I wanted people to know - even a tiny morsel like "I get tired easily" or "I have appointments two days a week hours from here" I told them just that part, only that part, and did not connect any dots from that. Please do your coworker the honour of going along. – Kate Gregory Apr 10 '17 at 18:58
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    @SpehroPefhany (And others who may be concerned) there is nothing to be sorry about, I got better. gregcons.com/KateBlog/SurvivingIncurableCancer.aspx – Kate Gregory Apr 10 '17 at 19:03
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    I am an ovarian cancer survivor (over 10 years symptom free since treatment), and strongly agree with this answer and @KateGregory's comment. I never wanted "condolences". I didn't really have the option of keeping it quiet, because treatment for me included major surgery. I still wanted everyone to treat me normally. – Patricia Shanahan Apr 10 '17 at 19:31
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    @KateGregory I followed your link and when it mentioned CppCon I realised I remembered your name, because I saw your lectures on YouTube! Just wanted to say your C++ talks were awesome and I'm happy to hear that you survived. – user1997744 Apr 10 '17 at 20:24
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    May want to add to this to be weary of trusting whoever told you. Unless it was directly related to your job, but even then it shouldn't matter. "Steve can't work on the 6 month upgrade" should have been used instead of "Steve has cancer and can't work on the 6 month upgrade." So whoever told you now has a proven history of choosing gossip over both professionalism and friendship. – corsiKa Apr 10 '17 at 22:13
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If the person wanted condolences then they would have made it more widely known.
The fact that you've been asked not to tell implies that the person telling you already knows this and has already violated the trust of the first person.

This is not about you.
Sure you feel bad for this person, but getting this off your chest isn't going to make them feel any better.

Keep it to yourself, as the person who told you should have done.

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Your coworker probably only told 2 or 3 colleagues because they want to maintain some normalcy in their life during this hard time.

Honor their wish and treat them as you normally would.

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I have a daughter with cerebral palsy. She occasionally will end up in the hospital and we won't tell anyone for a while. I struggled to explain why we did this, until I came across this great article.

Basically, the idea in the article is this: put the individual affected at the center, and draw concentric circles around that person according to how intimately connected others are with the affected person. So a spouse would be in the first level, immediate family the next level out, then intimate friends, then "work friends," and so forth.

The rule is "Comfort IN, dump OUT." So if the purpose of something you're going to say or do is to help yourself feel better, you're only allowed to say it to someone further out of the circle than you are. If the purpose is completely unselfish, you're allowed to say it to someone further in.

While comforting someone in and of itself certainly meets the rule, breaking a confidence and not respecting a desire for privacy doesn't, as it places your own desire to express your feelings over the desires of people further inside the circle.

The reason people with serious illnesses often want privacy is it puts them in the position of repeatedly providing "comfort out," even if unintentional. You end up explaining your condition over and over again, reliving people's shock over and over again, and it's often really hard to extricate yourself from a conversation until the other person is assured you're not about to drop dead if they leave. You're just one person, but remember there is someone else waiting to talk as soon as you leave. This is demanding and exhausting.

Your coworker is not an idiot. He knows people can tell he is ill, and trust me, he knows you care. You are showing more caring by giving him some space.

  • +1 I didn't quite understand what it meant when reading your answer at first but after I read the link I thought it was pretty damn insightful. Thanks for sharing! – Mehrdad Apr 13 '17 at 8:57
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A person has the right to medical privacy. If he/she chooses not to share directly with you, then you should act as if you don't know. I had a colleague who was diagnosed with a terminal cancer and went on sick leave. I was one of the four people in the office authorized to know. It was extremely difficult to deal with questions like "When is____ coming back? Do you know how she is doing?" when I knew she would never be back and that she was going to die shortly (as she did). But because people have a right (possibly a legal right in some jurisdictions) not not have their medical history bandied about by people not authorized to know, I did not tell people what I knew. That is the correct behavior under the circumstances. It was extremely difficult to do, but at this point the patient's wishes trump your desire to talk about it.

Don't approach the person and by no means tell anyone else. You should in fact talk to the person who told you and help them understand why they should not be telling anyone else.

  • May I ask, how did your company handle the situation after your colleague passed away? Did they let your coworkers know at that point? – Ben Sutton Apr 10 '17 at 22:50
  • In my school there are obituary and black flag displayed. I think it is appropriate. – Crowley Apr 11 '17 at 10:53
  • Yes, but they had her husband's permission to do so. – HLGEM Apr 11 '17 at 18:44
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When there was a decent chance that I had cancer (false alarm, thankfully - pre-cancerous), I just wanted to be treated like a normal person. If I told a friend, I told them to just treat me like normal.

If they're not telling you, then they don't want you to know, and you should just treat them as you would before - crack jokes with them, make fun of them, etc. Nobody likes being treated like they're one foot into the grave and everyone is desperately sorry - that's depressing.

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You colleague has obviously changed because of serious illness. Only ignorrant or blind one can miss it. Treat them with respect to this state. Do not be either careless either overcautious.

Only three colleagues were told why the colleague had changed and they were told for a reason. Cancer is serious ilness and many people tend to treat the patient as not-yet-corpse. (They are pessimistic, sad, overcautious,...) I know a lot of paraplegic people who are fed up with overcautious and overcaring people all around. And they are more happy than plenty of "healthy" ones.


Another reason why not to offer condolences is that you were not supposed to know it at first place. Who did tell you? One of the three in the inner circle? Somebody else (How did they know)?

See, one hopefully comforting sentence raise a lot of painful questions! Many times the ones who need to be comforted are not the ones suffering the illness. Maybe your urge to condole is your urge to comfort yourself.

If you really want to do something, avoid cancer jokes. There is not much more to do. Actually, not reminding them they are "different" is comforting.

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To be honest you have to respect the individual, in circumstances its usually best to the person with any illness to tell you first, as person who worked in the care-field, we were trained to respect at all times not too take their dignity and personal space away, all persons have different coping mechanisms; my father died of cancer, and i realize how even the little things are so important from a small chat, a smile, sorry to hear about your friend.

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Open a door

If you feel like offering your support, do so indirectly. Let this person know you're available if they want to talk. A good way to do this might just be to ask them if they are okay.

If you don't know this person well enough to ask that, you probably shouldn't try.

Don't use the confidential information

You have this information you shouldn't have. Don't use it, instead focus on the things that are public knowledge. Don't ask whether they are okay because you knew about their situation, but ask it because they come across in a way that may suggest that they aren't.

You mentioned several visual indicators that something might be wrong (hair loss, tiredness, pale). These should be the reason you are checking in on them, not the information you weren't supposed to have.

Respect it if they don't use the door

If they answer your question by saying they are fine or by saying that they would prefer not to talk about it, that's that. Don't pressure them into it, just leave it be.

Your outlet

Besides treating the other person properly, it's also important to feel comfortable about the situation yourself. However, you shouldn't involve the other person in that. Instead, talk about it to a partner or friend who has nothing to do with this company or the person in question.

Yes, strictly speaking this is breaking the bond of confidentiality. However, this way it's entirely inconsequential for the person it is about, so it's not so much breaking the intention of the confidentiality.

  • Once the information about the illness was given to someone who did not respect the person's confidence, it will have spread to many people, probably everyone in that workplace. People asking "Are you OK?" is going to tip the person off that their attempt to keep their condition confidential has failed. That could cause unnecessary embarrassment and/or annoyance. It will be much better for the OP to act just as they would without the information they should not have had. – Patricia Shanahan Apr 12 '17 at 13:43
  • @PatriciaShanahan I disagree. However, the reason for that was something I intended to put in my answer, but forgot due to attempted multitasking. I have added it now. – Jasper Apr 12 '17 at 14:01

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