Navigating work and cancer: How and when to share your diagnosis

Updated: May 15, 2018

Navigating work and cancer: How and when to share your diagnosis

Upon receiving your diagnosis, you will be faced with the decision to inform others.

With family and friends being the first to know, you then begin considering those whom you interact with on a daily basis such as your coworkers, classmates or those in an organization you are active in. These relationships are a bit more difficult to navigate as how, when and why you should share your diagnosis are all frequent questions.

There are many variables that equate into informing your colleagues and a wise first step is simply asking your doctor. You should be as informed as possible before sharing the information in a professional capacity.

Discuss with your doctor topics such as: side effects of cancer, side effects of your treatment, what your treatment plan will consist of, how often and how long will appointments be, how would they suggest telling your employer and so on.

“I typically recommend being as straightforward and transparent as possible,” said Dr. Mitchell Peabody, doctor of osteopathic medicine, Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center.

“I recommend people go to his/her boss and/or HR representative and explain their diagnosis and the proposed treatments that would be needed. It is helpful to anticipate how much work they would miss during the treatments as well. I typically recommend this type of conversation in person.”

You should know you are not necessarily required to inform your workplace of your diagnosis, but it is often wise to do so as frequent sick time and noticeable side effects will likely occur. We are also well aware in this day and age news can spread fast and even accidentally therefore it’s best to inform sooner rather than later.

“Inform work as soon as possible if there is anticipation of missing significant amounts of work due to therapy or side effects,” said Dr. Peabody. “In my experience, most employers are willing to work with you if you are up front and honest with them from the beginning.”

It is encouraged to first meet with your HR Director as they are most informed of your employee rights, have access to your sick time and medical plan and can assist you in making a plan as to how to proceed with informing the office.

Your HR department is the most equipped to help you process not only any paperwork, but any concerns or questions you may have. They should guide you with a voice of professionalism and always respect your confidentiality above all.

It is highly unlikely that you will receive any discrimination as a result of your diagnosis as you are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it is wise to talk with your HR Director about it.

This act requires companies with 15 or more employees to make reasonable accommodations to help you with your workload. Depending on where you work, you might also check into the Family and Medical Leave Act, which may protect your job and benefits for unpaid absences of up to 12 weeks.

You will most likely be directed to address your diagnosis with your manager and the president of the company. You can do this yourself or ask the HR Director to do so alongside you. It is important for those directly supervising your performance to be informed should your work be affected in any way such as absences or changes in your behavior or appearance. It would be wise to bring paperwork or pamphlets to this meeting that better help to describe your diagnosis and treatment plan.

From here, it will be up to you who you would like to share your diagnosis with. While you could tell each coworker one by one, that is time-consuming depending on the size of your company and someone will always be last or likely forgotten. If you do have a few coworkers who you consider friends, you could tell them privately.

Depending on your company size and comfort level, you could conduct a meeting informing of your diagnosis and answering any questions or simply have management send out an email. By whatever means you decide to share your diagnosis, you’re also in charge of deciding how elaborate or vague you would like to be. You may also decide to disclose more in the future.

“One should not feel pressured in answering any or all questions if they do not feel comfortable,” said Dr. Amit Jain, medical oncologist, Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center. “Informing coworkers ahead of time and letting the supervisor speak on their behalf maybe the best way to impart the relevant information without too many details.”

When telling a group of people you should be prepared for the diverse range of reactions you could receive. Prepare yourself for people’s questions or even their lack thereof, both are normal and acceptable responses.

“When I was first diagnosed I was a sophomore in college so, I had to share the news with my teachers, members of the administrations and later, fellow classmates as it was hard to miss once my hair fell out,” said Sonja Wagner, a cancer survivor.

“I first decided what I would be comfortable sharing,” she continued. “Then, I considered possible questions that would be asked and how I would respond. I also made it a point to remind myself before each of the conversations that some people don’t know how to respond to news like this, and that’s ok.”

It could be wise to plan out answers to questions that could arise or you could take it in stride and formulate your answers on the spot. For some, rehearsing answers and even engaging in conversation about cancer can be a form of catharsis. It’s also completely normal to not want to answer.

Your response can be as simple as, “I get tired of talking about cancer. Let’s talk about something else!”

If it helps, remind yourself that most people ask questions out of genuine concern for your well-being. You can use this as an opportunity to quiet certain misconceptions about cancer and educate people about it instead.

“Using the people in your life that you see daily, such as coworkers, teachers or classmates, as a support system can be a real game changer because although they may care, they are not as intimately involved as your family or friends are and therefor can provide a different kind of support,” said Wagner. “ These people might have experience with cancer due to a personal diagnosis or the diagnosis of a friend and can likely offer advice, resources or tips on how to handle certain aspects of your diagnosis.”

Sharing your diagnosis isn’t the casual, water cooler talk you might be used to, but it’s necessary and can often spark a deeper connection with your coworkers. You might just gain some new encouragers and supporters in your corner.