Many people with cancer continue to work during treatment. If you choose (and are able) to do the same, you will eventually need to decide whether to tell your employer about your disease. While most people want their loved ones to know about their diagnosis and treatment, deciding whether to disclose that information to an employer can be much more challenging.

Deciding whether to share

Some of the main reasons why some people avoid telling their employers about their cancer include a desire for privacy, a fear of losing their jobs and a concern about being treated differently. On the flip side, trying to conceal the reason behind your extended absences and hoping that no one notices the treatment-related changes in your appearance can become incredibly stressful.

Ultimately, only you can make the best choice for your specific situation. However, before you decide against telling your employer, it’s important to understand that the protections afforded under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) are only available to you if you disclose your diagnosis. This is because the applications must be filed through your company’s human resources (HR) department.

Choosing whom to tell

If you do decide to tell your employer about your diagnosis, choosing whom to tell largely depends on your company’s structure and how you fit into it. Your level of comfort with the individual(s) should also be considered. Typical starting points are your company’s HR department and/or your boss. They can explain any accommodations the company is able to make for you as well as help you determine who else, if anyone, needs to know.

If you work as part of a team, it may be a good idea to clue in your co-workers. You will likely need more time off than usual as you are undergoing treatment, and side effects such as fatigue and “chemo-brain” may affect your production. Therefore, your co-workers may need to pick up a little slack during your treatment, and knowing the reason why may stave off any potential resentment.

Planning the conversation

The first step in planning what to tell your employer is talking to your doctor. It’s important that you fully understand your situation so you can be prepared to answer any questions your employer may ask. Take detailed notes so you can later refer back to them.

Ask your doctor:

  • What treatment(s) you will receive
  • What the likelihood is that you will be able to continue working
  • How much, if any, time you will need to take off from work for your treatment(s) (or to recover from surgery)
  • How you can expect to feel during treatment
  • Whether you will be able to continue to perform your job duties at the same level
  • Whether your side effects may include any noticeable changes in your appearance and/or physical abilities

After you acquire this information, make a list of any accommodations (such as flex time or extra time off) that you think you might need. Then, come up with a few different ideas for how your work can still get done, even if you have to be gone. Finally, practice, practice, practice. Rehearse your conversation until you feel confident about what you want to say and how you want to say it.

Having the conversation

Depending on your company’s corporate culture, you may be able to simply pop in to someone’s office for an impromptu chat, or you may need to schedule an official meeting. Either way, take your notes with you, quickly remind yourself that most employers are supportive of employees who are facing a serious disease, and take a deep breath before you start speaking.

Begin by clearly stating your diagnosis, and then explain your treatment plan and schedule. It’s not necessary to reveal your type of cancer or your specific treatment, however, but it’s important for your supervisor to know that your ability to work can change depending on your reactions to the various treatments you will be receiving. Inquire if you’re eligible to do some of your work from home or if any of your work can be accomplished off-site.

Next, introduce your list of requested accommodations as well as your proposed workload solutions. Keep the tone of the discussion conversational rather than demanding, and allow plenty of time for the other person to ask questions. Remember, you do not have to disclose everything. Share only what you feel comfortable sharing and what’s absolutely necessary for your employer to know.

Finally, after the conversation, jot down some notes about how it went and what was said. Keep accurate, dated records of all of your cancer-related conversations that happen in the workplace. This way, if any problems later arise between you and your employer, you will have a detailed account of what led to the dispute.

Preparing coworkers

Your co-workers will also be affected by your treatments. Some or all of them may be covering for you during various phases of your treatment. Although you’re not required to disclose your diagnosis or specifics of your treatment, co-workers usually want to support someone they work with when diagnosed with a serious illness. Make them aware of how much you appreciate their support during this time.

Continuing communication

You will likely breathe a huge sigh of relief after your initial conversation(s), but you still have some work to do. Throughout your treatment, develop a system for providing periodic updates to those who know about your disease. If you neglect to communicate how things are progressing, it can create uncertainty, generate rumors, and cause an overall decline in company and team morale. Periodically sharing just a little bit of information about your physical progress and emotional well-being can go a long way.

Additional Resources

  • Cancer and Careers
  • CancerCare /Workplace Issues