ask the readers: working with a seriously ill manager

I’m throwing this one out to the readers to answer. A reader writes:

My manager, who everyone in our department adores, has just been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and recently has started radiation treatment. From what he and our HR department have told us, he will be working on a flex and teleworking schedule, coming in when he feels okay and working from home when he is able to. This means that we don’t know when he’ll come in from one day to the next. Since this has happened, I’ve been nervous and unsure how to go about our normal work relationship and workflow (in fear of overloading him) because he’s started to become noticeably depressed.

At the end of the day, I’m so very scared that I will lose a trusted manager, mentor, and colleague.

Do you have any advice for those going through this sort of situation? I know you’ve touched on the question of sick coworkers who readers might manage, but what about those that are dealing with a sick manager? Because he is my department head, I don’t know where to take cues from at this point, and am scared of worst case scenarios.

Readers, what thoughts do you have?

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 95 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    Ahh, damn.

    Well, you’ve got a lot of issues to unpack here. First – your own feelings about the situation. I think you should tell your manager exactly what you said here – that he’s a trusted manager, mentor and colleague and you’re really pulling for him. It’ll be good to know how much he means to the team. I’ve had a couple of my direct reports tell me in a non-sucking-up way how much they appreciate me, and it really makes my day.

    Second, you’ve got the issues of workflow and making sure the work is getting done. You can tell him that you’re worried about overburdening him, and ask how he wants you to get things done in his absence. Does he have a second-in-command, or a default person who will manage things when he’s out? Maybe ask if he’s considering doing that. Ask if you can take on any of his normal tasks while he’s focus on recovering – if there’s some weekly update that needs formatting or something like that, maybe you can offer to do it?

    Give him some time though – this is a lot for him to process and he’s understandably distracted right now. Knowing that his team cares and will pitch in to help manager the tasks will help a lot though.

    Just my two cents.

    1. Jessa*

      Exactly, if you’re worried about workflow give your boss a bit of time to be home and okay, and then ask. The easiest thing to do is whatever they want you to. Also if there’s any way you can help try offering concrete things “I can handle the Smith account for you if you want, but I’ll really need you with Petroski because I have no clue what you want to do there. Do you need me to bring you over some prepared meals or take your dog for a walk this weekend? Can I come sit with you so your caregiver can go out this Friday?” Whatever. This if you’re close enough to them is the time to find out what you can do BESIDES work to help. Vague “Let me know what I can do” language never works because people are reluctant to ask for direct help.

      Also try looking at what the upcoming tasks are and charting out what you can do yourself vs what you MUST have input on. Give your boss an idea of when specifically you HAVE to have them do something so they can plan around that. If you’re allowed in your job to step up and take over some stuff temporarily now is the time to ask your boss what they want to offload.

    2. Anonymous_J*

      Exactly what I was going to suggest. A conversation is definitely in order, and you should definitely defer to what HE wants, as that will alleviate a lot of stress.

      Also, if he is depressed, your reaching out to him will probably help a LOT.

  2. Brett*

    This also sounds like a good time to take advance of the Employee Assistance Program.
    (Incidentally, fund raising, no matter how minor, can be a great coping strategy for the workplace as a whole in a situation like this.)

    1. fposte*

      Oh, I’m going to strongly demur on the fund-raising–I would hate it if I were the sick person and I’d hate it if I were the co-worker. Find ways to support the actual person that works with you (we’re big on casserole brigades around here, which are totally opt-in, and you can always hand somebody cash to help fund a casserole, but there are lots of other ways to assist).

      1. AnotherAlison*

        Unless someone truly needs the funds, then I don’t think they hate it. It’s been done a couple times here for employees or their children who had to go for cancer treatments in other states, etc. The key here is that our culture is kind of tight-knit (or used to be) so people genuinely want to help & it feels real.

        1. fposte*

          Oh, that’s a very different kind of thing. Maybe I misunderstood Brett–I was thinking of using this as a moment to call for donations to the American Cancer Society or do bake sales in the co-worker’s name.

          For me, it would still be important to make it low-key, though, and be clear about what it’s for if it’s not going to actual treatment (travel and housing for the family is definitely one I see).

          1. AnotherAlison*

            Hmmm, well I guess I don’t know what Brett meant. : )

            I was thinking of the ones we did where the money raised went to the actual families. We do United Way and a bunch of others that I’m less thrilled with, but these are generic, not piggy-backing on someone’s personal struggle. We do have a few annual in-name-of type fundraisers but they are for foundations that that the deceased employee’s family has set up.

          2. Job seeker*

            I agree with fposte. I would never want to have so much attention drawn to me. I think just being supportive and your manager knowing everyone cares is important. I would play this by ear and be sensitive to how hard this must be for him. Low-key is always good and to me the most comfortable for the other person.

            1. Marmite*

              I agree that low-key is the way to do any fundraising and the actual giving of the money to the sick person should be done without massive fanfare (i.e. one person handling it not the whole office throwing a “here’s some money we’ve raised for you!” party)

              But, I wanted to point out that people’s priorities change in these situations and while you might never want that much attention drawn to you normally your gratefulness for the money and/or people’s kind gesture may outweigh that in this type of circumstance.

              1. tcookson*

                My coworkers collected money for my family last semester when I was out for a month with my daughter whose appendix had burst. She developed a resistant infection and was in the hospital for eight days and then on home antibiotic IV for another several weeks. I had enough sick leave that I stayed home for six weeks and still had some left over, but the medical bills were burdensome.

                One co-worker was kind enough to organize a collection and all my co-workers were extremely generous. The one co-worker brought the money to my house one day after she got off work, and my husband and I were simply stunned at the generosity that people showed up. I appreciated the kind and sensitive way in which they handled it, too.

                1. Elizabeth West*

                  Aww, how nice of them. And very discreetly and perfectly handled too. I hope your daughter is feeling better now. :)

          3. Brett*

            I specifically meant fund raising for the manager, to directly provide them funds for treatment, family support, etc.
            At my workplace, we also have leave donation drives and will even raise funds to cover COBRA if a coworker is ill for so long that they no longer have insurance coverage. The fundraising itself can be a very motivating activity. Ours range from leave drives and trivia nights to charity boxing matches and MMA fights (featuring coworkers!).

        2. Jessa*

          I know that in all the union shops I’ve worked in if a coworker or manager is going to be out more than a week or two they always pass the hat around. When my husband was ill the union gave us $150 in cash, which helped pay groceries until his disability leave kicked in. But at management level, it’s different. If you really think there’s a NEED it’d depend on your corporate culture.

      2. Anonicorn*

        This is why I appreciate and contribute to our humanitarian fund. The money is still coming from associates in the organization, but it’s a much more broad charitable level than donating to a specific person or situation. I feel like that type of assistance would be more easily accepted than what might be perceived as “I feel sorry for you” money.

        1. Jessa*

          Also some companies let you bank leave for someone. So you could for instance give one of your sick days or holiday days into a fund they could use if their leave is running out.

          1. tcookson*

            We can donate our leave to the catastrophic leave bank, but you can’t give leave to a specific person. People who need extra leave have to apply for it, and there are some rules attached. Like they have to have worked here for a certain amount of time, and they have to have a certain amount of their own leave banked. I can’t recall specifically how much, but it is to protect the bank from people who chronically drain every bit of leave that they have from gaming the system to get even more.

      3. Laura*

        I just found out about a great thing called the Care Calendar, that was set up for a friend of mine who has been dreadfully ill and in and out of the hospital.

        It’s an online calendar set up so people can sign up to make a meal for the family. It’s great because you can set the frequency – every day, every other day, etc and it also ensures that the meals are provided on a steady basis rather than getting a casserole avalanche at the beginning of your treatment or hospital stay, and then not having anything while you’re still recuperating, or you or your spouse may not have the time or energy to worry about dinner for your kids.

        1. Marmite*

          Oh jeez, I remember the casserole avalanche, it is the opposite of helpful if you have a very small freezer! Our neighbours were well fed for a couple of weeks!

          1. Jessa*

            Yeh and there are LOTS of things besides food, particularly with cancer patients who often have very narrow lists of things they can eat that do not make them seriously sick because of chemo and all.

            You can offer to walk dogs. You can offer to take kids to the movies. You can offer to go sit with them so spouse and kids can go out for a night. You can offer to drive them to and from a doctor’s appt so the family can sleep in.

        2. tcookson*

          One of our admins set up something like this for one of our professors who had a serious bike accident. Each person could sign up to bring a meal to the house, and we covered about 2 – 3 weeks of meals for them and their extended family who came to stay with them. It was wonderful to be able to see the meal schedule and what everyone else was bringing so that one could vary the type of casserole or whatever from day to day.

      4. Marmite*

        My partner had terminal cancer (died 2 years ago) and we appreciated both people who brought dinner, offered to help clean the house, free babysitting for our kiddo, etc and people who donated money to us. The people I really remember, though, are the ones who took the time to keep in touch and ask how he was doing, invited him/us out to things (while not being offended if he/we couldn’t go) and generally let us know we were thought of. It is surprising how many people feel so uncomfortable about a diagnosis like that that they just disappear completely for fear of not knowing what to say/how to deal.

        FWIW, in our case we were scraping by but were not in desperate need of money for rent/food/medical bills, people knew that and often gave us money with the express purpose of helping my partner (and our child and I) enjoy the time he had left. Some people gave us airline miles when he was well enough to travel, others gave restaurant gift cards etc. It made a huge difference to us and I am still grateful to those folks, but the people who made it clear they were there for us and cared about what was going on were an amazing support whether they offered money or not.

          1. Marmite*

            Thanks. I do a lot of awareness work for a charity supporting young(er) people with cancer, so our story’s not something I have any problem sharing!

        1. Elizabeth West*

          There is some good advice in your post. I’m so sorry for your loss. *virtual hug*

        2. Anonymous_J*

          I’m sorry for your loss, but it’s very heartening to read about how people pulled together so that you could enjoy what time you had left together. :)

      5. Grace*

        I have found it helpful to organize meal trains for sick/injured coworkers at www dot mealtrain dot com (it’s free). You can get the person’s/family’s food preferences, allergies, etc. You email invitations to people and they can sign up to bring food/buy a meal.

    2. B*

      I will voice against the fundraising. It becomes a slippery slope then. What if someone else becomes sick, but not as sick. If you don’t fundraise for them it is rude but if you do then you are going back and asking people for more money, again.

      I think if people feel the need to do something, ask him. Maybe someone likes to cook and would be happy to make them a meal, maybe someone wants to knit them a blanket. Maybe someone can help with the kids. There are a lot of things each person can do as an individual that does not involve money.

      1. Brett*

        That has been a bit of a problem to be honest. A coworker who was paralyzed on the job has received enormous amounts of support (easily mid-six figures) while employees who had serious bouts of cancer only received a few thousand. The families of coworkers who died or were killed on the job will receive support for decades, often including college for their kids; while you have actively working employees with chronic but not necessarily terminal health conditions who struggle to pay for college for their children.

        But I was actually suggesting that fundraising activities can be beneficial to the employees themselves who can have an outlet to do something. I don’t just mean pass the hat either, I mean actual fundraisiers like restaurant nights, trivia nights, sporting events, etc. Of course, a lot of this depends on the size and history of the company, but this sounds like a fairly large and close-knit work environment.

        1. fposte*

          Okay, now I’m back to demurring. Obviously this kind of thing is a taste call, but you can have a really tight-knit workplace and still not want to do this. It certainly wouldn’t help me as a co-worker of somebody ill. Is there any pressure on people to participate or resentment if they don’t?

        2. Frieda*

          But on-the-job injuries are different than an illness that occurs outside of the job. I assume that the six-figure help and college education is from workman’s comp? That’s a little different than passing an envelope around at work.

          Which of course is not to say that it’s good or bad. The problems involved in affording medical care for a terminal illness speak more to a problem with the healthcare system (at least in the US) than in not enough people donating money to friends.

          1. AnotherAlison*

            Not speaking for Brett’s workplace, but I might guess he also works in construction. In addition to the workman’s comp or insurance benefits, my company also sets up a way for other employees to give personal donations. I don’t know that the donations alone have ever reached mid-6 figures.

            1. Brett*

              I work public safety. Major metro area police department with about 3,000 employees.
              There is very little pressure to donate, but there is very strong pressure to participate in the activities. e.g. you do need to go the memorial breakfast, but if you don’t want to pay for the tickets someone will pay for you. No one knows who pays for whose tickets.

              1. Grace*

                You can also coordinate meals (homemade or bought) at www dot mealtrain dot com (it’s free!).
                You can get the sick person’s food preferences/allergies and that of their family,
                choose how many days they need meals, and email different people to sign up.

    3. glennis*

      Another thing some workplaces allow is for employees to donate some of their sick leave hours to other employees who are in need. You might explore that option, if your manager is going to be out a lot.

  3. Portia de Belmont*

    I’m sorry you are going through this; I went through it early in my first career and can still remember what a frightening time it was. What I have to offer is this: as much as you can, take things day by day. Take your cues from him about what he can and cannot handle at the moment. Communication is important here, but if he is a capable and adored manager, he already knows that, and that his team is behind him. Can you have someone designated as “point person” to handle the more routine parts of his job? This would leave him free to focus on the things that only he can decide/initiate/approve. Mentally prepare yourself for a long haul , but also keep in mind that cancer treatments have never been better than they are today. I’d appreciate an update, as you see how things go.

  4. Kelly O*

    First, your boss has my sympathies. I’ve dealt with this with family members and close friends, and I can only imagine what he is dealing with on a personal level. Feeling depressed is completely normal.

    Second, try to be as “normal” as you can. My Dad used to get so frustrated when he felt like he was being treated as the “sick” person, even when he was trying to cling to as much normalcy as possible.

    And, as Katie pointed out, think about small things you might be able to help with – “Hey, Jim, I know your schedule is a little crazy right now, and I was wondering if it would help you if I did the TPS report on Thursdays?” – or sitting in on a conference call that really just requires a warm body on the other end. You’ll know better than us what routine things there might be in the office that could free up a little time.

    The last thing is, tell him how you’re feeling too. I mean, with the above caveat of not focusing solely on it, but just a “Jim, I’m worried for you too, and I want to help.” Then, do it. If he says there isn’t anything, keep following up. He may not think about things right now, but as time passes, he will. I can’t tell you how many people told us, “we’ll do whatever you need” and then disappeared. The people who cared, the people who Dad wound up depending on the most, were the ones who said it, and then followed up with action, whether at work or in personal things. Just showing that you’re there, on the bad days and the good ones, and being sort of a calm place.. that helps more than you can imagine.

  5. Joey*

    Two different issues:

    1. I’d take cues from him on whether or not you discuss his diagnosis. People who are majorly sick can range from acting as business is usual and not wanting it mentioned all the way to bringing everyone into it emotionally. If he’s shared with you his cancer diagnosis I think its perfectly appropriate to tell him you’re pulling for him. Outside of that take your cues from him.

    2. I would remove the cancer issue from all discussions about workflow concerns. Approach it as though he’s capable of meeting the same demands of the job unless you’re told otherwise. Just ask how he wants things handled in his absence.

    If he’s not able to handle his job duties I don’t think its appropriate to offer to take on his job duties. It might feel good to try and help, but you would be perpetuating the situation- its not a sustainable fix. I’d rather see you raise those concerns with him or his boss. At that point its really up to him and his boss to determine if his duties should change and who if anyone will absorb them.

  6. Brian*

    I had a much loved boss that went through a similar situation, and unfortunately she passed away after a six long months. I think the most important thing to remember is that your boss is going through something absolutely life-changing. Things may not get done because he doesn’t have the time, energy, or emotional capacity. But the most important thing you can do is show them that you care about him and be a force in their life of support and help. When my boss was really sick we would take weekly volunteer runs to her house on the weekends – I often cleaned for her, and several of my friends got groceries or took her kids to the movies just for some quiet time and space. Honestly, the times I got to talk to her while I was scrubbing her kitchen floor mean 1000 times more to me than any work stoppage or pipeline conversations we could have had – I don’t even remember those pieces at all, looking back.

    It’s scary to think you might lose someone you care about, but it’s something we all have to face and this may be one of those times for you. There’s plenty of places to go to ask for help with these feelings. Also, if you feel awkward or you don’t know what to say, there are lots of cancer support websites and cancer society resources to help you understand what’s most helpful. It’s not easy to know what to say to people who are going through this, but take cues from your boss and listen more than you talk, at least in the beginning.

    1. IronMaiden*

      That’s beautiful, Brian.

      Could I add that if you (OP) feel awkward or don’t know what to say, there’s no shame in saying that you feel awkward and don’t know what to say. Or you can say nothing. Few people are comfortable with silence but it can be soothing and healing. Your boss might just enjoy your presence without the pressure of conversation.

      1. Jessa*

        Just please remember that while it’s okay to feel awkward it’s not okay to make it the ill person’s job to make you feel BETTER. Talk it out with your family or a coworker or someone else in the know. But be very careful of how often you put out to the ill person that “you’re having trouble dealing with this.”

        1. Lora*

          THIS. I barely told anyone the second time I got cancer, simply because people would act like I should be comforting them. Even people I wasn’t very close to, which was even more awkward. People about whom I only know that they work on the third floor and use the last good coffee creamer without replacing it, it’s just bizarre.

          The other thing, talk to them like you normally would and don’t ask all the time how they are feeling. Once a month at most, or if they’re looking especially ghastly. It gets old when everyone and their brother wants to know. I’m tired, my swollen armpits hurt, I’m grumpy and counting down the hours until I take my next pill. I do appreciate my colleagues who provide a solid eight hours of normalcy–talk about weekend plans, music, food, travels, current events.

          “I’m sorry to hear that,” “dude, that sucks,” and “if there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know” are all fine. “I’ll think happy thoughts on your behalf” and variations thereof is OK.

          Don’t get too intrusive with the questions, I don’t like telling my colleagues about infected biopsy sites oozing green smelly pus and bloody lymphatic fluid squirting out of private places. I do not want to know about the miracle cure you found on the internets or your personal opinion of my chosen treatments, unless you actually are an oncologist yourself.

  7. Just a Reader*

    I’ve dealt with this. My best advice is to take cues from him as to if/how he wants to talk about his situation.

    From a workflow perspective, what worked for me was taking the entire portion of her job that affected me (so I took the clients we worked on together and someone else took the clients that they worked on together) and handing her small, manageable pieces when she was in the office/working. That way nothing got left hanging, I didn’t step on her toes but the day-to-day was covered.

    It’s a very hard thing. I’m sorry to hear about your boss.

  8. Frieda*

    I disagree with a few people’s comments to “tell him how you’re feeling,” unless limited to only supportive things, for reasons better explained here:,0,2074046.story

    I don’t remember if I came across this story from this blog or another one, but basically only complain about the situation–and even if “complaining” means that you’re worried about losing a friend and that’s hard to deal with–to people farther removed from the situation than you are.

    1. Laura B*

      Thanks for linking to this! I read it a while back and didn’t bookmark it, and have wanted to link to it several times since then. Comfort in, dump out is something I think everyone needs to be careful about doing.

    2. Marmite*

      I agree with this, but with the caveat that saying something is better than not speaking to the person at all for fear of saying the wrong thing. You don’t have to mention their diagnosis or your feelings about it, but don’t get so worried about coming across the wrong way that you end up avoiding the person.

      In other words, remember the “comfort in” part is as important as the “dump out”. And the comfort can be as simple as touching base to chat about your sports teams rivalries.

      1. Frieda*

        Absolutely! Both behaviors–“dumping in” and avoiding the sick person completely–both are missing the same point, which is “this isn’t about you, it’s about them.”

    3. Anonymous*

      Thanks for that link. It’s very good advice, and I’ve been on both sides of a misplaced “dump” that could have used that advice.

  9. fposte*

    I’ll also add, OP, that it’s okay to find any consequent work problems frustrating. You don’t have to put all your normal emotions on hold.

  10. Helen*

    I have been in this exact situation. For more than a year my manager was almost completely absent from the office and the work that she did from home was hit or miss. The team basically worked around her and each person had to keep themselves on track since there was no one facilitating team discussions or load balancing. We coped by sending summaries of what we were doing by email so she could check them and respond on her schedule. I learned to seek out others in the company directly for immediate needs instead of escalating it to my manager. I also had to be able to summarize in a succinct email instead of having a natural face to face conversation.

    I did well with this type of work environment and sometimes even miss it. I will be honest and say I didn’t understand why my manager didn’t want to take time off to focus on recovery, and I didn’t understand why the company let the situation continue without appointing a temporary manager. I learned later that continuing to work and letting her family keep a semblance of their daily routine was important to her. I think it was very kind of the company to allow it.

    My advice would be don’t ask for personal details, wait and see what your boss offers (or doesn’t offer). It might be frustrating but try to learn something by not being able to rely on your boss for a face to face conversation or an immediate answer.

    1. Just a Reader*

      Not every company is friendly with time off and not every employee can afford to take unpaid FMLA. It has to be a really tough thing to keep working and not be able to focus 100% on recovery.

  11. Bryant*

    My mother in law is in the situation where she is the manager with cancer, something that really made her feel supported was that people were able to donate PTO days to her, that might not be something that your organization allows but it would hurt to ask about it.

    I know if I were in this situation I would gladly donate a paid day off to my supervisor. It really means a lot to my mother in law and also helps to keep her financially solvent, as she gets to take a paid day off instead of relying on any sort of short or long term disability payments.

    1. fposte*

      We have a sick leave pool for people who’ve run out of sick days, but you can’t earmark your donation for a person. I’m sure there are reasons, but I think that’s too bad.

      1. Joey*

        I’m sure it would be crazy trying to keep up with a bunch of conditional sick leave donations. Besides you would probably want some consistent method for determining who it would gets it.

      2. Windchime*

        That really is too bad. Fortunately, we are able to Paid Time Off and we are able to donate to a specific person. A coworker’s husband was seriously ill and she was so appreciative of all the donated time off that allowed her to be with him while still getting a paycheck.

    2. Jazzy Red*

      When one of my coworkers was diagnosed, we asked our HR director if we could donate PTO time to her. He refused because, as the family always says, “we don’t do that here at BrandX”. We were furious. We work directly with the world’s largest retailer, and they do this ALL the time. If they can keep track of the thousands of hours being donated, our 300 person company should be able to do that too.

  12. GeekChic*

    I was initially diagnosed with my current round of cancer several years ago when I was still a manager (and in a different country).

    My staff were aware of my diagnosis but were very good at allowing me the illusion of normalcy that Kelly O described earlier. They also managed to walk the line of being concerned but not prying. I really appreciated that.

    When my treatments became particularly intense my Director and I appointed an interim manager to act when I wasn’t up to doing things. They were also the point person for contacting me and for issuing notices about how I was doing. Staff told me later that this was very helpful so you might inquire about that sort of setup.

    A number of years have passed since that time and I have moved on to other employment and I’m not managing anymore. I have a terminal diagnosis but am still able to work and things are still OK for the moment.

    My sympathies to your boss and also to you. In some ways it is easier being the patient as you at least know what is going on – the people who have to stand and watch on the sidelines are stuck feeling helpless.

    1. Not so NewReader*

      Thank you for sharing from a personal level, GeekChic. I think that you are awesome for helping OP here. Lord knows you have enough of your own to contend with.

      If I may ask, during your management time and even now as a non-manager, have there been gestures or efforts that were especially helpful to you? I am wondering if there some stories stand out in your mind.

      And yes, the sense of helpless is huge. People do like to do things to combat those feelings of helplessness. But also it is an expression of caring, too.

      The last month my late husband was alive, his coworkers hammered out a deal where he could attend a department meeting by phone. (Skype wasn’t a big thing then.) They did a good job- everyone could hear my husband and he could hear them very well. The meeting had everyone smiling. It was a very rich/empowering experience on so many levels. And it lessen the helplessness and showed the caring.

      I am thinking that these types of stories might help the OP to develop some workable ideas.

      1. Lora*

        Don’t know about GeekChic, but here is what I have appreciated both the first time I had cancer and the current diagnosis (I have crummy genetics, argh):

        -Food that I can eat. Someone else mentioned that dietary restrictions are problematic, this is true, but ask. Reed’s ginger beer, which is barely sweet, is good for nausea, and gummi candy is great for soothing your esophagus/stomach after barfing all day long. I was a big fan of sushi (yes, really) because the wasabi made my mouth and sinuses feel cleaned out and the rice and fish was pretty bland and inoffensive. The forbidden stuff is usually tomatoes, citrus juice, acidic things, it stings like you would not believe and is awful when it comes back up. Strong smelling stuff (Tex-Mex), greasy fried things, blue cheese, just driving by a Taco Bell was enough to set me barfing.

        -Help with chores, although it is kind of embarrassing for other people to see my dirty house. Walking my dogs, awesome!

        -Non-funereal flowers/cards on the days when I am scheduled for surgery. Although I would die of embarrassment if any of my colleagues saw me in a pink hospital gown, or coming out of twilight anesthesia in the recovery room.

        -Just hanging out when I am too tired to go out-out. Movie night, board game night, cards, having a girls’ night with manicures/pedicures. I like socializing and seeing people and not feeling abandoned or trapped, but when you’re not fit to drive you don’t get a lot of choices.

        -At work, helping with the report-formatting and other little things that someone mentioned upthread. I personally get chemo-brain and I appreciate friendly reminders of what’s coming due, what deadlines are coming up, because I forget everything constantly (used to have a nearly photographic memory). Not everybody does though.

        -If you see me walking to the bathroom with a hand over my mouth, it is NOT the time to have a quick chat. It is time for you to get out of my way as fast as possible.

        -Doctors will call you at work with crummy news. If you’re in an open office, all the previous threads about what to do when a co-worker starts crying apply. Driving me home when I got REALLY bad news was something for which I will be forever grateful to my old boss.

        -Stuff happens and you might need to drive me to the hospital. Making sure at least two people have contact info for my doctor and the hospital where she has privileges is important.

        1. Not so NewReader*

          Thank you for responding, Lora. Great stories/tips too!

          I wanted to pick up on “chemo brain”. I think this will be helpful for OP, also. My aunt used to refer to chemo brain and it helped me to understand where her struggles were so we could both rise above the brain farts and continue on with the important stuff. My aunt was a very practical woman and we could talk about work-arounds to rise above chemo brain.

          If it’s not too much to ask, can you give a couple of examples of what chemo brain looks like in action? Or perhaps an example of what a person does to stay on track?

          Thank you for dragging this point out into the light of day- I always say- don’t let this stuff stay in the dark closet and fester. Put it out in the open and reduce its power.

      2. GeekChic*

        My condolences on the loss of your husband Not so NewReader and thank you for your kind words.

        You asked about specific gestures or efforts that were helpful to me. I can think of several that stick out:

        – My colleagues resolutely treated me as “normally” as possible unless they knew of specific accommodations that I needed. I got the usual firehose of questions when I managed and I’m still expected to crawl around pulling cable when necessary now. They have not forgotten that I am me. I’m not just “the person with cancer”.

        – Everyone was very adept at handling the changes in how I felt and what things I needed to do my work depending on treatment and level of disease. I distinctly remember how no one flinched when I had to wear a mask for several weeks while at week when my immune system was weak.

        – During a particularly hard month recently that involved lots of pain my boss called every day to check on me to see how I was doing and just provide a distraction. If I didn’t answer the phone she just left a brief message and encouraged me not to worry about calling her back.

        – People respected my wish for privacy by being understanding that I didn’t feel comfortable accepting certain kinds of help (Lora mentioned helping with chores and I was… particular about who I let assist with that.).

        – The Canadian Cancer Society has an annual daffodil campaign to raise money for cancer research (and other causes). I was in the U.S. when I was diagnosed with my latest bout of cancer and I have an emotional memory of coming in to work one day to find daffodils on everyone’s desk as a sign of support and a statement that they understood that I was far from home. At my current job, someone buys a bunch of daffodils in my name every year the campaign is on and leaves them on my desk.

        It’s emotional remembering all of those gestures. Thank you for asking.

        1. Not so NewReader*

          Very powerful stuff, GeekChic! I got to the daffodils and I had a good size lump in my throat.

          A perfect example of a powerful understatement. Classy.

          Cancer or any other disease is a part of life but not the sum total of life. Life has more aspects than just having a disease.

          I learned with my husband that no ONE person has the perfect approach or all the perfect answers. And that is okay. It takes a whole group of people each contributing in ways that they know best. Some people are really good at cooking. Some people are really good at calmly explaining medical things. Other people are great with dogs. One person in our life was really good at nailing the shingles back on the roof. (One less thing we had to think about.)

          OP, think about what you are good at and that is your entry point to answering your questions. It’s like a movie verses a snap shot. As this story unfolds you will find more and more ways to process and move through what you are seeing. Nothing stays in one place. Insights will come.

          And, yeah, in the midst of all the pain/discomfort/worry things like daffodils happen. Gestures that are beautiful and heart-warming beyond measure or words.

          Thank you for sharing GeekChic and Lora. May your willingness to share/care come back to you a 100 times over.

  13. Laura*

    When it comes to pitching in to do something for him and/or his family, one thought is taking up contributions to hire someone to clean the house while he’s going through treatment and recovery.

    Now, some people would be weirded out by this, because I know there are people out there who just prefer to clean their homes by themselves and don’t like the idea of a stranger doing it for them, so you would have to see if this is something your manager and/or his family would like or would find intrusive.

    I have no such reservations. I am at the point in my life where I don’t feel bad about admitting that I’m absolutely horrible at housework, and I completely suck at it. We have cleaning people every other week, and I’m eternally thankful that I’m not the one who has to do it.

    Going through chemotherapy treatments is incredibly difficult and stressful for the patient, as well as his or her family. Dealing with the side-effects can eat up all your time and things like dusting, vacuuming, and cleaning the bathrooms can fall by the wayside. Having someone to do that for a few months would be one less thing (albeit a small thing) not to worry about.

    1. Marmite*

      If they’re not comfortable with/don’t need the cleaning then offering to handle laundry can be a big help. When my partner was sick we didn’t really need help with house cleaning because our place was only two rooms + tiny bathroom, but laundry with a sick partner, a small baby, and using the communal (always busy) building laundry room was a huge time suck. I jumped on offers to handle a load or two for me!

      1. Laura*

        Oh, that’s a great idea! The laundry never ends and if you turn your back on it for too long, it multiplies while you’re not looking.

        1. Ruffingit*

          Laundry is a big help! Also, someone could just take all the laundry weekly to a fluff and fold place, pick it up after work and delivery it back to the person. That costs a bit of course, but is one way to pitch in and make sure that the laundry is done on the same day every week so the sick person knows when to expect it.

    2. Not so NewReader*

      Also, priorities change. So a person may say NO this week but next month come back and say “Uh, is that offer still good?”

      On the other hand, a person may say “No, I don’t need help with X but what I really need is help with Y.”

      Nothing is set in stone- everything fluctuates.

  14. CEMgr*

    A well-organized, well-executed, opt-in, care calendar effort, that is based on agreement with the affected employee, is just perfect. It could be casseroles, babysitting, picking up out of towners at the airport, grocery shopping, yard care, medical bill organization, or whatever else is specifically requested or agreed by the affected employee. People’s situations and needs vary wildly, so what would be appropriate for a single rural mother of two with a high income and a 6 month chemo program out of town probably would be just wrong for a married low income older man in an urban area who…..whatever, you get the picture.

    If it’s done right, it’s invaluable. If it’s done poorly, it can be useless or even an additional burden or headache for the employee and participants.

  15. Marmite*

    There are already loads of great suggestions from people who’ve had managers in this position. I’d just add, from my experience with a terminally ill partner, not manager or co-worker so take it with a pinch of salt, that if your manager is well enough to be at work they will likely appreciate a semblance of normalcy while there. Treat them as if nothing’s different as much as you can. Say it’s nice to see them/ask how they are when they arrive for the day, then get on with things as close to how you normally would as possible. Sometimes it gets tiring to always be treated with kid gloves.

    1. Jazzy Red*

      And make sure their office or cubicle is clean, the coffee mug is washed and the plant is still alive.

      A friend went back to work after taking time off to care for her son, who was in a devastating motorcycle accident. She was gone for 3 months. When she came back, all of her stuff had been moved out of her cubicle into another (much less desirable) one, nothing was put away, everything was coverered with dust, and her plant was dead. Welcome back…

  16. Poe*

    This happened to me early in my career, and to our #1 person during a time of huge change in the organization, to boot. First, make sure you take care of yourself. Someone mentioned using your employee assistance program- if you have one, do it. Find a trusted friend or family member who is willing and able to be a sounding board for your concerns and fears. Then, try to leave your emotions at the door when you go in to work. Difficult, I know!

    Ask to have a short meeting with your boss to lay out all of your upcoming deadlines and work out a communication system. My boss had throat cancer, so email was the best way to communicate. I did a twice-weekly “batch” email with all of the odd little non-urgent things that come up, then we came up with a subject-line system to filter other issues so he could tell by a glance at his inbox folders what was happening.

    Having things laid out for me like that helped me relax about the uncertainty. This is a hard thing to go through. Good luck.

  17. PPK*

    I’ll echo that a backup manager is needed. Someone who has the responsibility of covering when the manager isn’t around. Or maybe department members could each be backup for a different aspects of the managers job as appropriate. John does the Monday call. Lucy does interaction with Company B. Some things should only be done by another manager — so it would be nice if there was a manager who could be the backup for personnel/confidential things.

    For the OP directly, it sounds like using the company EAP for themselves might not be a bad idea. Talk through some of their fear about the illness and potential outcome.

    As for interacting with the manager — it’s hard to say. Everyone is different. Some would like it ignored, some would like to be asked all the time, many people are somewhere in between.

    1. Jessa*

      Yes, but try to do this with input from the absent manager, this is NOT the time to end run around someone to their bosses, or just start grabbing responsibilities without a plan. Try not to marginalise the absent boss.

  18. Chinook*

    This is going to sound ghoulish, but has your organization come up with a succession plan for the short term? What would happen if your boss suddenly is incapable of doing his job? A “won the lottery” manual is a good idea for any position, but is doubly important for someone higher up as they have all sorts of signign authorities and responsibilities that need to be taken care of for the organization to run smoothly.

    If it hasn’t been brought up yet, I would frame it as a way to create less stress for them if thigns become more unpredictable. i.e. if they choose not to come in to work, they don’t have to worry about anything being missed.

  19. Lisa*

    When I was going through cancer a few years ago, I absolutely appreciated the semblance of normalcy. I was able to WFH on days when I couldn’t make it in (or the week post-chemo when you are vulnerable to every possible illness). I had one person get a bit nutty on me and shaved my head ‘in solidarity’ when I went bald, otherwise people just remarked at how good I looked and admired my scarves and hats when I wore them.

    We’ve got a small company (~15 ppl), so we can have a lot more flexibility to manage events.

    But, personally, I really appreciated *not* being fussed over. The people I know care let me know, the rest of the staff went about their business. Life went on.

  20. MovingRightAlong*

    There are some really good suggestions already, but I’m just going to reiterate the importance of listening. The extent to which you can help is going to depend a lot on how much your boss and his family want/need help. So offer, but make sure you’re not making him uncomfortable. I would absolutely tell him how much he means to you and offer strategies to support him. I would not, however, bother to mention the cancer unless he brings it up. It will undoubtedly be on his mind constantly already and it may be easier to hear things framed outside of the context of illness. Ask about a point person because he’s working remotely, not because he’ll be tired from treatments. Offer to take his kids to the movies because you bet they’ll love the latest Pixar flick, not because he might need a break.

    Of course, you may find that’s not the best way to approach him at all. So again, listen and take your cues from him. Everyone handles these things differently.

    And if you need a little help pulling away from the heavy emotions that accompany all this, I recommend searching iTunes for Tig Notaro’s stand up performance at Largo. I wish I could have listened to her talk about her own diagnosis during my mom’s illness.

  21. Bonnie*

    We lost one of our founders a few years ago to a very aggressive cancer. One thing we found was that lowering the number of people he had contact with helped. By the end there were only three people in the company working with him directly. They were people who he trusted and understood what his priorities were going to be and who knew him well enough to recognize he was getting too tired before he even did. Additional contact outside that core group was up to him.

    It is so hard on everyone when something like this happens. No one knows what to do and everyone wants to help. Like others said above let the manager be your guide on how he wants everyone to react to the situation. Also remember that this can change over time. People who are terminal are grieving their own deaths and will often go through the stages of grief at a different speed than those around them.

  22. Anonymous*

    My former boss went through cancer and radiation therapy a few years back.

    Two things I would watch out for: The side effects of the radiation therapy meant he would have to bolt for the men’s room with no warning, so if your boss has to up and go abruptly, don’t take it personally. Meetings would likely be a challenge, so having someone available to take notes if there isn’t one already would be a big help.

    Even more importantly, this kind of thing can really mess up the brain. Expect him to be out of it and/or forgetful, so offering to keep tabs on what needs to be done would be a big help. The ability to tactfully remind him about things would be a life saver to him!

    1. Marmite*

      The tactful reminders is a great idea. Chemo and radiation to the head/neck can both seriously mess with memory.

      The sudden need for the bathroom is likely linked to the specific area of the body that was receiving radiation, so this may not be an issue for the OP.

  23. DEJ*

    I was once in a similar situation with my boss. The difference between your situation and mine? My boss was a bully. Not that I wish anyone ill, and getting cancer is horrible, but I admit it was a huge relief when he wasn’t in the office because I didn’t have to worry about whether I was going to get yelled at that day. As far as I know, none of us volunteered our assistance on a personal level.

    For us it was all about keeping up normalcy while he was gone and when he was in the office. He was a higher-level manager, so we had a go-to person who could make a lot of decisions on a day-to-day basis. We copied him on relevant emails (maybe a few more than we would have otherwise), and waited to make decisions that we knew he would want input in around his schedule as we could. We made it work, and took a lot of our cues from him.

  24. ChrisTheLibrarian*

    A friend of mine is a survivor and when she was sick, an online calendar really helped. She lives in a pretty big, very tight-night Orthodox Jewish community, which means that she has a lot of people within walking distance to her house. They used the calendar to make sure everything got done and at the right time (no casserole overload in the beginning, etc).

    On the more selfish and self-centered side, because she had so much help so close, I felt really helpless. I did get to take her to chemo one time, which, quite honestly, made me feel a lot better. So even if you feel like you only “get” to do one “bigger thing” for your boss, concentrate on that. You might not feel like you’re doing that much, but every little bit helps and I am sure he will appreciate it a lot.

    Also, it sounds weird, but treating her like I always did actually helped me too. I had kind of a tough time dealing with it and spent her recovery period basically in denial. [I knew she was sick, but didn’t really get *how* sick. It only recently (within the past year) set in that there was a real possibility she wouldn’t make it, and she’s been cancer-free for over five years.] Since I was so sure that she was and would be fine, why would I treat her any different? And because of our relationship, we were even able to joke about it (“Turns out, taking a friend to chemo is a great excuse for taking a day off!” etc.). That, obviously, is *very* much dependent on your boss’ personality and your relationship with him. Humor is how my friend and I both deal with stuff, so it was business as usual for us. I’m sure a lot of people wouldn’t appreciate it, but she did and, were the roles reversed, I would have.

  25. Girasol*

    From a work standpoint, IM is the telecommuter’s friend. If it’s not a huge team, ask the boss to show “open door” with an IM available marker and to use an away marker to indicate unavailability, whether for doctor visits or naps or just can’t deal with work right now. Have the team use IM to offer encouragement and “hey, we’re on top of it!” as well as “what do I do” questions. I used to instant message chat with a coworker home with cancer. He did lots of work from home but sometimes he just wanted someone to talk to, just like people do in the office.

  26. Elizabeth West*

    I just want to say everybody here has really stepped up to the plate to give the OP the best advice possible. That’s what is so awesome about the comments/commenters here. I love this place!

    And for everyone who is ill/has suffered a loss, here are

  27. Anne*

    This is a few days old, but hopefully the OP is still reading…

    Chances are, if you all adore this manager, they love their job. It might be a really central thing for them. So, in my experience… well, my Dad really, really loved his job. He was a well-known expert in his field, totally devoted, did a whole lot of good in this world, and, yes, pretty much everyone he worked with adored him. He was diagnosed with cancer when I was a teenager, and it was very aggressive. Unfortunately, he did not survive. But the attitude of his co-workers towards the whole situation was really touching.

    If your manager really likes his job like that, it’s going to be important to him to keep working on it. Things my Dad’s co-workers and managers did that really helped:

    -Made all the allowances and provisions they needed to to get the work to him where he was, whether that was in the office, home office or hospital bed. Conference calls, couriering important documents.
    -NOT just letting it slide un-noticed if they were waiting on something important from him. If he gets a reminder and needs to delegate it to someone it’s fine, but do ask.
    -Contacting him on his cell phone instead of our home phone whenever possible, even when they were pretty sure he was at home. The whole family was dealing with it and frankly, sometimes just picking up the phone and saying “Dad, it’s for you, can you take it right now?” was a bit much for me.
    -Not talking about the illness when it wasn’t relevant to anything else, but not ignoring it when it was. “How are you coping with the chemo?” out of the blue was shitty, “You look like you’re in pain, can I fetch your meds for you, do you need to take five” during a meeting was good.
    -Not getting involved unless a request was actually made, and doing as much as possible then. When Dad was hospitalized, he was throwing up a lot, but said to some of his staff that he would really love some of his favorites from the local deli and bakery, just to see if he could keep down something he actually LIKED. We had bagels, hoagies, and chocolate out the wazoo for a week. He did actually keep some of it down, but more importantly, it was a big morale boost. Somone handing us a voucher for a cleaning lady or showing up at our door with a casserolle and possibly expecting us to be able to provide coherent, cheery conversation for a few minutes… really wouldn’t have been.

    And for Christ’s sake, I don’t care how much you love your pets and I’m sure it must be heart-breaking, do NOT do what a friend of my mom’s did – “Oh, my goodness, my cat has just been diagnosed with the exact same kind of cancer! It’s so terrible for him, he seems to be in so much pain, he won’t even eat his kitty treats! What kind of treatments are they offering for your husband? Who’s his doctor? Do you think I can talk to them about similar treatments on cats? Could you give me his number?”

    (Now, it’s funny. Then, my mom was ready to shoot the lady.)

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