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Talking About the C Word with Colleagues – Part 2 in a series

  • 01.15.2018

In Part 1 of this series we discussed how to talk to your family about your cancer diagnosis. In this blog, we address talking to your boss and co-workers about your disease.

Should you tell your boss about your diagnosis? Do co-workers need to know? Will it affect how they treat you? Could you lose your job?


Should you talk about your cancer at work?

These are not simple questions, nor are there simple answers. However, it is likely that your cancer will impact your job attendance and performance, in small ways and big. In addition to time off that is required for appointments, your mental clarity may be affected, you might be fatigued, in pain, experience nausea or other side effects.

While you are not required by law to tell you employer, proactively managing expectations for those impacted by your illness is advisable for a number of reasons.

  • Management will better understand the need to accommodate schedule changes.
  • Co-workers can help support your workload, if needed.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects workers with serious illness from discrimination in hiring, firing and training, but only if they have informed their employer. 

This last point is pretty important. If you face discrimination, you are only protected if your employer has been advised. So the short answer to the question of whether you should talk about your cancer at work is — yes.


How to talk about your cancer

Boss comes first

You do not want your boss finding out through the grapevine or social media that you have cancer. In your work environment, they should know first and they should hear it from you. Find a comfortable, private setting to deliver the news and be sure you’ve scheduled adequate time to talk — you don’t want to drop this info at the water cooler.

Before you meet, write down what you want to say. How much you share is up to you, but consider the issues that will impact your job, like appointments, length of treatment and expected side effects. Consider what time off you want or will need to take. Consider whether you’ll be able to continue with your job responsibilities or when you may need to step away. Perhaps working from home or during off hours is an option. This may be something you and your boss need to work out together. 

Next up, Human Resources

If your company has a human resources department, they should be next on your list (depending on your company structure, you could talk to your boss and HR at the same time). You can learn about your company’s specific illness and disability policies and discuss under what circumstances the Americans with Disabilities Act might cover you.

The ADA gives you the right to get “reasonable accommodation” for serious health conditions, but exactly what that means can vary. It could mean time off, using an alternate work space or getting different office equipment to make you more comfortable.

RELATED: Find cancer support resources

What do co-workers need to know?

What you decide to tell co-workers is entirely a personal choice that will depend on your relationship with your office mates. Some people are very close with their co-workers and may want to share with them as they would other friends. Others, in very competitive work places or environments where people work very independently, might not feel comfortable revealing any information that makes them feel exposed or vulnerable. If you choose to keep your cancer private, remember that your boss and HR are required to protect your personal health information and confidentiality.

If you do decide to share, consider that there may be benefits.

  • Having a sympathetic ear in the office, if you plan to work through your treatment, could be comforting.
  • Co-workers are more likely to pitch in and help support you on the job or take on extra duties if they understand your situation and don’t believe you’re just slacking off.
  • Employees have been known to donate their vacation time to support a sick colleague who requires time off.

Be aware that once you open the door to sharing your personal health story, some might barge right in and take a seat. Be prepared to set boundaries with co-workers as far as what you want to share. It is quite OK to say something like, “Thank you for your concern, but I’m not really comfortable talking about my treatment. This is all really new to me.” 

If you’re looking for exceptional cancer treatment in Carson City, South Lake Tahoe, Fallon or Gardnerville, look to Sierra Nevada Cancer Center. Same week or sooner appointments are available by calling 775-883-3336.

For current cancer-related health news delivered to your inbox, subscribe to Sierra Nevada Cancer Center’s newsletter.

Read part 1



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