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Should You Tell Your Boss You Have Cancer?

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Heather Millar - Blogs
By Heather MillarAward-winning writerAugust 06, 2014
From the WebMD Archives

In my several years in the cancer world, I often have run into fellow patients who think they need to keep their cancer a secret from their employers. They don’t want to be pitied. They don’t want to be seen as weak. They can’t afford to lose their job.

If someone has the stamina to be productive at work during cancer treatment (I most certainly did not) and they want to keep it a secret, then I guess I should say: “All the more power to you. You’re amazing.”

But for many of us (probably most), cancer treatment does affect our work. It makes our brains fuzzy. It makes us feel like a steamroller has just run us over. It gives us mouth sores, nausea, body aches, and on and on. I would never criticize someone whose work takes a hit from this tornado of icky side effects.

There is no law that says you must tell your employer. If you do tell, though, you don’t have to be super specific about all the details of your diagnosis. But if you think you’ll need schedule changes or other accommodations at work, it’s a good idea to be upfront with your employer, experts say. If you don’t tell, you can’t get help.

Employees have rights when they get a serious illness like cancer. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects workers from discrimination in hiring, firing and training. It also requires that employers make reasonable accommodations for those with a disability or a disabling chronic illness. For instance, if someone with cancer could continue to do their job with a simple schedule change, or a physical alteration of the workplace, then the employer is supposed to allow for that.

But the ADA only covers people with cancer if they have made their employers aware of their illness. As the excellent Cancer and Careers web site puts it, “What your boss doesn’t know could wind up hurting you.”

Consider these things before you sit down with your boss:

• If you can, get an idea of what your course of treatment will be: How long can you expect to be in treatment? When might you be unable to work? Will you need to have surgery and take extended time off? How long do you expect to be able to continue your duties? Will you be able to perform all of your job responsibilities?

• Write down what you want to say first. Share only as much as you want or feel is necessary.

• Some things you might want to discuss with your employer include: Any accommodations you might need to keep working during your treatment. Might it be possible to work some days from home? Could you catch up on weekends if chemo or surgery makes it necessary to take several days off? Also, ask your boss if you should talk to the human resources department, if your company has one.

• Most employers try to be compassionate and supportive of workers with cancer. But it’s still a good idea to keep a record of all the emails and conversations you have with your employer, just in case you have to file a discrimination complaint.

• While it’s a good idea to tell your boss, telling your co-workers is really a matter of personal preference and of the culture of your company. If you’re a private person and you work in a field that’s highly competitive and intense, you may choose not to tell your colleagues and clients. If you work in a small, tight-knit firm where co-workers socialize after hours, you may decide to be more open. That choice is yours.

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About the Author
Heather Millar

Heather Millar is an award-winning freelance magazine writer and author with wide-ranging interests including health, science, the environment, geopolitics, technology, parenting, and Asian affairs. 

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