Cancer in a Dental Practice: How to handle a diagnosis on your team


Learning of a cancer diagnosis from a colleague can be devestating. Here's what you should know about managing the situation with your team.

If a colleague tells you, “I found a lump. My doctor said it’s cancer,” what would be your reaction? Some of us may cry. Others may be in shock and feel numb, others may not know how to respond. Maybe some will worry about longer hours or covering their colleagues’ patients-as this will undoubtedly affect everyone in the practice in some way.

I have been a social worker working in healthcare and in a community touched by cancer for over 20 years. It is embarrassing to admit, but I am clueless as to what to say when I hear this devastating news. One would think it gets easier to hear something so frightening when you work in healthcare, but it doesn’t.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years professionally and personally-the most important response is to just be there. Don’t worry about finding the perfect words to comfort someone because you’ll never find them. Don’t change the topic of the conversation onto yourself or share some horror situation about someone else who battled cancer and lost. Just listen.

A hug seems like a natural reaction, but that sometimes isn’t the best idea. I suggest only offering a hug and waiting for permission. I say this for several reasons. Not everyone likes to be hugged, but also, this is a workplace and hugs are not recommended in that environment. Plus, you don’t know if perhaps this person had a biopsy or a procedure that will physically hurt if you hugged them too tightly.

But, let’s take a closer look. What will happen when a diagnosis like that is shared with the staff? People will come forward and hopefully are supportive. I have seen one dental practice pool PTO time and give it to the person with the diagnosis so that she could financially survive while fighting for her life. It truly was one of the most spectacular things I have ever witnessed. To have your colleagues come together and problem solve how you will manage through treatment and recovery was truly a humbling experience for everyone involved. But, what else can you do?

  • Be present. Listen. You don’t have to know what to say or do. You must simply show that you care, even if that means sitting in silence together.

  • Ask the employee whether they want their co-workers to be aware of the situation. Like any other issue, you must maintain your employee’s privacy.

  • Talk to the employee about scheduling and what she/he has been told to expect as far as being able to work during treatment.

  • Offer to start a meal train if desired.

  • Offer to coordinate carpools for treatment days if needed.

  • Offer to start a Caring Bridge website entry to keep people informed, but only if the employee agrees.

  • Brainstorm ways to make the job more manageable.

  • Ask the employee if you can check in periodically to see how they are managing and make sure they’re not overwhelmed.

  • Discuss what the employee wants shared with patients.

  • Discuss easing back in after a leave of absence.

  • Be aware of smells and products that may make your colleague nauseous during treatment. Perfumes and perfumed hair products etc. can be problematic for some.

Not everyone will be there when they’re needed, many because they simply don’t know how to act when this devastating news is shared. But amazing teams stick together when illness hits and truly become stronger and closer through this ordeal. The question is-what kind of team do you want to be on? One that will be there when you need them, or one that abandons one of their own?

Email me at and let me know what kind of team you are on. Have you had to face a challenge like this in your practice?

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