Tips for Telling Your Co-Workers About Your Cancer Diagnosis

Categories: Survivorship & Work

Tips for telling your co-workers about your cancer diagnosis

Let’s be clear about one important fact: Your medical history and health concerns are entirely your business. When you were diagnosed with cancer, you may have decided not to share that news with your co-workers. Now that you’re a cancer survivor planning your return to work, you need to decide how you will address the subject of your cancer in a way you’re comfortable with.

Keeping your cancer diagnosis a secret from co-workers after you return to work usually isn’t practical. More than likely, you’ll look different when you return to work than you did when you left. You may be wearing a wig or your hair may be growing back. You may have lost a substantial amount of weight. Some symptoms of cancer treatment can’t be hidden. If you don’t provide an explanation for your physical changes, your co-workers will probably worry about your overall health. When you do tell them, they’ll probably have plenty of questions - mostly out of concern for you! 

Another reason why it’s beneficial to tell your co-workers about your cancer diagnosis is to clarify why you’ve missed work. Whether you took a long or short break while you were being treated, your absence probably meant that co-workers had to temporarily take on some of your workload. If they know you missed work to undergo cancer treatments, they’ll be far more gracious and understanding than they would if they assumed you were on vacation.

You may feel comfortable being very open about your cancer journey, or you may prefer to share only the most general information. How you approach these conversations is up to you. Just remember, at the heart of it, most of your co-workers, including your boss, will be most concerned about how you're doing physically and emotionally. Many will want to know if and how they can help. That’s just human nature! We’ve created some tips to help make the process a bit easier if you decide to share your cancer journey with co-workers.

Decide How Much Information You Want to Share

Some people say they’re “open books” when it comes to discussing their medical issues. Others are willing to share only the most general information. What’s your preference?

  • Minimalist: You could say simply that you missed periods of work because you had cancer, and leave it at that.
  • Somewhat open: You could say you missed work while being treated for breast cancer that required a few different types of treatment.
  • Pretty open: You could say you missed work while undergoing chemotherapy followed by a mastectomy to treat your breast cancer. You might even give details about the medicines because others may have gone through a similar experience and can relate to side effects.

It’s up to you if you want to share and how much you want to share.

It’s also helpful to be straightforward with the co-workers you share with about how you feel about talking about your cancer. Once you tell them, do you want that to be the end of the conversation? Or, do you find it helpful to share your feelings and answer questions?

Anticipate Questions You Don’t Want to Answer

If you decide to share only limited information about your cancer, your co-workers will naturally be curious about the details. Many of their questions may seem personal. They probably do not mean to pry. Instead, they probably want to help or share stories about their loved one’s cancer experiences. If you’re not ready to hear those stories, it’s OK to explain that. If you sense a co-worker veering in that direction, you can simply say, “I know that many of us have had family and friends go through this. It's not easy. Hearing others' stories right now is really hard for me. Maybe one day I'll be ready to talk."

You’ll probably find that most co-workers will respect your boundaries. If you encounter people who simply can’t keep their curiosity to themselves, be ready with a response that will stop the conversation. You could say, “I’m tired of talking about my cancer, let’s talk about something else.” Or, you could be more direct and say, “I don’t feel comfortable sharing the details of my cancer diagnosis. But, I’m happy to report that my treatments are over and I’m glad to be back at work!”

Decide Who to Tell

If you don’t want all of your co-workers to know you have or had cancer, make sure the ones you do tell can keep the information to themselves. If you’re being selective, think about your reasons for sharing your story at all. Do you want to explain why you were out of the office for a long period? Do you want to put an end to rumors and speculation? Are you in need of emotional support as you re-enter the workforce? Do you simply want to be able to talk openly about your feelings? Are you experiencing long-term cancer treatment side effects that may affect your job performance? Your answers to these questions can help you decide which co-workers to tell.

Additionally, how much you share with co-workers will also depend on how closely you interact with them. People you interact with daily will probably need a little more information. If you’ll be missing work for follow-up doctors’ visits, for example, they probably should when you’ll miss work for those. Of course, you’ll probably also feel comfortable sharing more information with co-workers you’ve become friends with. For those, you don't interact with very often, but who may notice your absence, a less-detailed explanation should suffice.

Decide How to Tell

If you’re only telling a select few co-workers about your diagnosis, you may feel more comfortable inviting each person to lunch or calling them into your office privately and telling them one on one. If you’re telling a specific department or team, you may prefer to tell the entire group at the same time so you don’t have to repeat the same information over and over again. If you’re telling your entire company, you might decide to send out an email.

Your experiences are yours to share, or not share, as you see fit. There is no right or wrong way to tell your co-workers about your cancer. There is only a way that is right for you. Your first inclination may be that you don’t want to be the center of attention or be treated differently. However, this is a time in your life that you sincerely could benefit from an extra bit of TLC! Expect your co-workers to be more patient and understanding -- and to offer help in many different forms. Take it all in stride and don’t be afraid to accept help if it makes sense for you.