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How to tell your boss and co-workers you have cancer

January 10, 2017 | by CTCA

a cancer patient explaining their medical condition to employer
Sharing a cancer diagnosis isn’t easy. It is normal to be nervous, especially if you don’t know how your supervisors or co-workers will react. Prepare yourself for a wide range of responses and emotions. By sharing your news, you may find you receive the support and understanding you need to help you get through cancer treatment.

Dealing with a cancer diagnosis may be an overwhelming and confusing time, not only for you but for friends and family, too. If you work, you may be wondering how to share your diagnosis with your boss and co-workers, and when. Taking time to prepare and plan what you’ll say, how much you will share and how you will deliver the news may help ease a difficult announcement.

Sharing a cancer diagnosis isn’t easy. It is normal to be nervous, especially if you don’t know how your supervisors or co-workers will react. Prepare yourself for a wide range of responses and emotions. By sharing your news, you may find you receive the support and understanding you need to help you get through cancer treatment.

The following tips may help you better prepare to share your diagnosis:

Tell your boss directly: It is important that your boss hears about the news from you and not through the grapevine. Find a comfortable and private setting to deliver the news. By opening the lines of communication with your supervisor, you may strengthen your relationship and set clear expectations. The Americans with Disabilities Act includes certain provisions designed to protect you if you've made your employer aware of your medical condition.

Talk to your HR department: Once your boss knows about your diagnosis, he or she will need to communicate the information to the human resources department. You may want to go directly to your HR representative to learn more about company policies and your employment rights. You may also want to discuss your treatment schedule and options for flexible work arrangements.

Start with a trusted co-worker: Work cultures vary by workplace. By first speaking with a trusted co-worker, you may be better able to assess and plan how to share the news with someone who knows firsthand the culture and people involved.

Plan how to share: Decide ahead of time how many people you want to share the news with and how you want to communicate it. If you want to tell everyone the same information at the same time, an email may be an option. If you expect to become emotional while discussing your diagnosis, it may be easier to ask a trusted co-worker to spread the news. You may also consider making a list of people with whom you’ll share the news in private.

Plan how much to share: It is important to decide ahead of time how much you want to share with your co-workers about your diagnosis. Some may ask about your cancer type, stage and the treatments you are undergoing. Sometimes, people openly ask questions, offer advice or even share their own personal stories. Be prepared for a wide range of responses, and decide ahead of time how you’ll respond if you are asked questions you don’t want to answer.

Accept help: Many people will react by asking, “What can I do to help?” You may not know how to answer that yet, or what help you’ll need. When you are ready, let others know how they can help, and be as specific as possible.

Once you have shared your diagnosis, discuss with your human resources representative the modifications and accommodations you may need. Elaine Smith, Mind-Body Therapist at our Atlanta-area hospital, suggests developing a plan that includes concrete measures that may help you remain a valuable employee. “By working closely with the human resources department, you can adjust, modify and be realistic about your work responsibilities,” she says.