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How to Tell Coworkers About Your Cancer Diagnosis

How to Tell Coworkers About Your Cancer Diagnosis

When it comes to your medical history and health concerns, what you choose to divulge is up to you. At the time of your cancer diagnosis, you may have decided to keep that information to yourself rather than sharing it with your coworkers. Now, as a cancer survivor ready to return to the workplace, you will once again need to decide how much information you wish to share. 

While you could keep your cancer diagnosis a secret from coworkers, it really isn’t practical. After all, it’s 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. Perhaps you lost a significant amount of weight. Maybe you have some obvious lingering side effects from cancer treatment. If you don’t provide some sort of an explanation for these physical changes, your coworkers will probably worry about your overall health. When you do tell them, prepare for questions— but try to remember that it’s mostly out of concern for you!  

Another good reason for telling your coworkers about your cancer diagnosis is to clarify why you’ve been absent. Regardless of how much work you missed, it’s likely that your coworkers had to cover for you. Knowing that you missed work to undergo cancer treatments rather than missing for vacation will leave them feeling much more gracious and understanding about temporarily taking on your workload. 

Again, how much information you divulge and how you approach these conversations is up to you. If you aren’t comfortable with being very open about your cancer journey, only share the highlights. No matter what you choose to share, just remember that most of your coworkers, including your boss, will be most concerned about how you're doing physically and emotionally. To make it easier to share your cancer journey with coworkers, we’ve compiled some tips to get you started.

Decide What Information You’re Comfortable Sharing 

Are you one who’s comfortable discussing your medical issues openly? Or, do you prefer keeping it general? 

  • Minimalist: Keep it short and sweet by simply saying you missed periods of work because you had cancer. 
  • Somewhat open: Maybe mention that you missed work to undergo a few different types of treatment for breast cancer. 
  • Pretty open: Talk about undergoing chemotherapy and mastectomy to treat your breast cancer. You might even provide more detailed information regarding the medicines you took, since there might be a coworker who can relate to a similar experience.

Whether you share a little or a lot about your situation, make sure to set boundaries if needed. Will this be something that can be talked about more? Or, do you prefer it to be the end of the conversation? 

 

Anticipate Questions You Don’t Want to Answer

Naturally, there will be curious coworkers who would like more details. You might find that their questions seem too personal, but try to maintain perspective. They probably do not mean to pry. Oftentimes, they just want to help or share stories about their loved one’s cancer experiences. But if hearing those stories makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s okay to explain that. Simply be honest by saying something like, “I know that many of us have had friends and family go through this. It's not easy. Hearing others' stories right now isn’t really something I can handle at the moment, but maybe one day I'll be ready to talk." 

More often than not, coworkers will respect your boundaries. However, if you encounter people who simply can’t keep their curiosity to themselves, be ready with a response that will stop the conversation. Let them know that you’d prefer to talk about something else. Or, be more direct, letting them know you don’t feel comfortable sharing the details of your cancer diagnosis. 

Decide Who to Tell

If you prefer to only tell a limited amount of people at work about your cancer diagnosis, make sure to tell them to keep your confidence. If you are being selective about who you tell, think about your reasons for sharing your story in the first place. Is it because you want to explain why you were absent from work for such a long period of time? Are you looking for emotional support? Would you like to put an end to rumors and speculation? Are you experiencing long-term cancer treatment side effects that may affect your job performance? Do you simply want to be able to talk openly about your feelings? Answering these questions can be helpful when deciding which coworkers to tell. 

Additionally, how much you share with coworkers typically depends on how closely you interact with them. People you interact with daily will probably need a little more information than those who work in a different department. Being more forthcoming with those you work most will be especially helpful in times when you’ll be out for things like follow-up visits with your doctor. Of course, you’ll probably feel more comfortable sharing more information with coworkers 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 only a select few coworkers will be finding out about your diagnosis, you might feel more comfortable telling them one on one over lunch or within the privacy of your office. If it’s a specific department or team you’re telling, it might be easier to gather them together so you can tell them at the same time. If you’re telling your entire company, sending out an email might be the way to go.

Remember, how, when, where, why, and with whom you share your cancer experiences is totally up to you. There is no right or wrong way to go about it. There is only a way that is right for you. While you might not want to be the center of attention or treated differently, it wouldn’t hurt for you to have some extra TLC as you deal with this new adjustment. Don’t be surprised to see patience and understanding from your coworkers (or even some extra help here and there). Take it all in stride and don’t be afraid to accept help if it makes sense for you.