A week or two ago, I got a phone call from a woman newly diagnosed with breast cancer. She was a friend of a friend. I field calls like this fairly regularly. Helping out those who are shell-shocked at the beginning the cancer journey feels like a way of paying it forward – a way of saying thank you to everyone who was so generous with their time and talked to me for as long as I needed when I was first diagnosed.
This woman was concerned about how much to reveal at her workplace. She had already told her boss, and the management team and the university where she worked. But she was worried about whether she should tell all her co-workers and her students. What should she tell them? When should she tell them? How should she tell them?
I get that. When you’re first diagnosed and struggling with your own feelings, you soon learn you have to deal with everyone else’s feelings as well — and their misconceptions too, i.e. “It’s a death sentence!” Every time you tell someone, you have to face your fears and theirs. It can be exhausting.
If you do a lap of web sites that discuss issues of cancer and careers, most are careful to say that telling co-workers, or not telling them, is a personal choice. It’s hard to disagree with that: Some people are private and don’t want to tell the world. (This would not be me, obviously.) Some people work at very competitive places that are not nurturing. Some are in authoritative positions and may feel they can’t look weak. So in that sort of workplace or career, being seriously ill might damage a person’s ability to do their job.
But, generally speaking, I’d vote for sharing at least a bit of information with your co-workers or your clients. You may think makeup, a wig, and a tough attitude will cover up your cancer, but in my experience that’s not true. You may look okay, or less than awful, but you won’t look the same. And co-workers (and clients and customers) will wonder. I think it’s better to say something than to have people whispering and wondering behind your back.
I’ve asked several cancer survivors what worked for them, so here are a few tips for discussing your condition with people you work with:
• Schedule a time and meeting place so you can talk without interruption. (Don’t just blurt out your diagnosis during a budget meeting.)
• Even if you opt to tell people, you don’t have to tell them everything. Keep your news simple and to the point. You can just say you’ve been diagnosed and your medical team thinks you’ll be in treatment for so many months. You don’t need to get into the stage of your disease, your prognosis, or the exact treatment if you don’t want to. Share only as many details as you feeling comfortable sharing.
• Tell your co-workers what kinds of day-to-day changes they might expect — like when you may be absent because of chemo treatments or surgeries, and so on.
• Expect questions that you might find strange or uncomfortable. People have many questions and misconceptions about cancer. Try to think of what your co-workers might ask, i.e. “Are you going to die?” “How can you possibly work through this?” “Is cancer contagious?” “Even if your cancer goes into remission, isn’t it only a matter of time until it comes back?” Don’t be surprised by these questions. Be ready for them.
• Tell them if or how you’d like to keep them updated on your treatment. Maybe you have a family member who’s going to be sending out email updates, and that person could also send the email to a particular person at work. Or perhaps, you don’t want to give updates. Whatever your wishes, be clear about them. By being upfront, you can minimize the “How are you?” questions that, while well-meaning, can feel exhausting when you’re trying to work through chemo.
Have you decided to tell your co-workers about your cancer? If so, what worked for you? Are there other tips you’d suggest for having this difficult conversation? Let us know here.