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Theresa Dils, a special education teacher at Cosgrove Middle School in Spencerport Central School District, fought through Hodgkin lymphoma in 2012 and 2013. She received this gift as a Christmas ornament from a colleague in honor of being cancer-free. “It was my best christmas ever. My healing was heaven sent,” she says. | Photo by David D. Dils 

It is a tough situation that can also be uncomfortable—a colleague is diagnosed with cancer or other serious illness, and you want to do something, but you don’t want to interfere or impose.

So, what do you do?

“Do something,” is the advice from teacher and cancer survivor Theresa Dils.

Dils, a special education teacher at Cosgrove Middle School in Spencerport Central School District, fought through Hodgkin lymphoma in 2012 and 2013, so she knows how much it means to get support from colleagues.

“My extended biological family couldn’t believe the support from my work family,” Dils says. “I can’t even begin to mention everything they did for me.”

Dils was diagnosed after she discovered a lump on her leg. Through months of testing, diagnosis and chemotherapy, fellow teachers, staff and administration helped Dils and her family in several ways.

“A friend went with me and my husband every time I had to go to treatment. That meant they had to take off on their own time to spend that day with me,” she says.

While Dils often fell asleep during her treatments, having someone to talk to helped her husband get through the long, trying time.

Other work friends helped by providing meals; taking up a collection to help with expenses; anonymously donating gifts for the Dils’ children; sending cards, notes and emails; and wearing matching purple T-shirts.

“Purple is the color for lymphoma (awareness), and someone bought purple T-shirts with the words ‘Kickin’ it’ on them,” Dils says. “I would wear one every time I went to treatment, and so would the person who went with us. My friends at work would wear one, too, as a sign of solidarity.”

When Dils was able to return to the classroom, she was concerned because she had lost most of her hair. To help ease her transition back to school and support her, the school hosted a hat day.

“And my friends would just buy hats and leave them on my desk for me. We are going to sell the hats and donate the money to our Relay for Life team, because I never want to wear a hat ever again,” she says.

Even small gestures can make a big difference, says Kristina Thomas, senior director of Hospital Systems for the Eastern Division of American Cancer Society.

In her role as a social worker and educator, Thomas presents the Cancer Etiquette workshop to advise people on how to help their friends and co-workers through cancer.

“Even before the diagnosis, the whole process of not knowing and leading up to it can be very stressful. It helps to have someone there to help you through it,” she says.

“You can write a personal note and leave it on their desk. Offer to take them for a cup of coffee if they want to talk, or buy them a coffee card to let them know you are thinking of them,” she says.

Through Dils’ several-month ordeal, her work family helped her focus on get- ting better without worrying about the “little things,” she says. The meals, child care and companionship were all gestures that helped her to be in the mental frame of mind to fight the disease.

“Every little thing can mean so much. Just sitting with me and folding laundry or just crying with me—everything helped,” Dils says.

And sometimes in a work situation, the best form of support means not talk- ing about the cancer. You’re not avoiding the topic. You’re simply recognizing that the person still has a life outside cancer treatment.

“Often, people may go to work to feel normal. Work is where they can go and not focus on the disease. Follow their cues to see what you can do for them,” Thomas says.

As simple as it sounds, both Dils and Thomas say the best form of support is simply being supportive.

“Just be there, just let them know you care,” Dils says.

That support, Dils thinks, helped her beat cancer. Cancer, she says, is not only a physical disease, but a mental one. Now cancer-free, Dils says her experience has made her a better friend and co-worker.

“Going through cancer has made me understand and know how to help someone else,” she says. “Knowing I had that support recharged me mentally. And when I was really down, I would think, ‘They believe I can do this,’ and that really helped.”