Be the Boss Over Cancer

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You've decided whom. You think you know what. Now comes what some of us consider the most difficult part — how do you tell people about your diagnosis?

Prepare for Misconceptions

If you're apprehensive about telling your co-workers, it's not unwarranted. Despite all of the advancements and innovations in cancer treatment today, there are still many common misconceptions about what a cancer diagnosis means. It's important to be aware of these myths before you start spreading the word so you know how to react. The most common are:

  • Cancer is an automatic death sentence
  • Cancer is contagious
  • Cancer means you will have to stop working
  • Cancer automatically makes you less productive, less competent or less reliable

Prepare Yourself

First, know that it's perfectly understandable to be nervous. This isn't easy information to share with anyone. No matter how close you are with your supervisor or co-workers, there's simply no sure-fire way to tell how they'll react. But they will look to you for clues; if you're open about it, they're less likely to shy away from the topic.

Prepare yourself for a wide range of responses. Remember that your own reactions to your diagnosis were varied, and if you didn't know how to react, chances are the people around you won't know either. Many will need a little time to get used to the idea. Acknowledging possible responses can help make facing those moments easier.

Try making a list of possible reactions — both those you'd like to avoid and those you'd most like to see. Some examples include:

  • Fear
  • Discomfort
  • Confusion
  • Pity
  • Anger
  • Avoidance
  • Support
  • Love
  • Understanding
  • Sympathy

Other tips on how to tell your co-workers:

  • If you're telling just one or two colleagues, create a comfortable, private environment in which to tell them.
  • Reveal only as much as you want to in a straightforward manner. People will take their cues from how you present yourself.
  • Give them a chance to ask some questions, if you're comfortable enough. As you know only too well, some people have no experience with cancer and don't know what you're facing.
  • Explain to your confidants what to expect in terms of future absences, and let them know there may be times when your mood and productivity will be affected. Don't be afraid to ask if you can rely on them for help. It's better to let them prepare for handling a few of your duties beforehand than to spring it on them at the last minute.
  • Consider letting people know if you expect your appearance to change in terms of hair loss, skin and weight changes. Explain to them that it's part of the process of getting better — you may even throw in a joke about how you needed a makeover anyway.
  • Most importantly, reassure your co-workers that you're not disappearing on them. You'll still be in the loop with their assistance and you're still an integral part of the team.

Ask for What You Need...and What You Want

Both supervisors and co-workers will most likely appreciate your frankness about your cancer in terms of being a team player and preparing them for changes. Taking the plunge and sharing the news, however, doesn't mean you've given up your right to privacy and control.

Even the most well meaning co-workers can seem cumbersome at times, particularly when your energy is taxed. The last thing you want is a parade of colleagues streaming by your desk each day, asking you for updates. You shared what you wanted and you can draw the line. This is sometimes referred to as setting limits or boundaries with people. Give yourself permission to say no in a professional, tactful manner. For example, John F. was struggling with one co-worker in particular who likened his cancer experience to her mother’s battle and continually told him unhelpful stories each day. John tried unsuccessfully to avoid her and realized it would be better to be upfront and direct with his colleague. One day John stopped the story by stating, “How do I tell you in a nice way that these stories are not helpful.” From that day forward, his colleague began asking John what he needed, rather than taking it upon herself to offer misguided advice.

Armilda Y. was just as direct as John F. in telling her co-workers what she needed from them. "I felt they needed to know from the start that I insisted on no pity — just understanding, well wishes, prayers and support."

Often, people may have certain expectations about how you should be reacting to your cancer. When you don't follow those expectations, it sometimes feeds their need to offer their own advice, direction and help.. This is why it is so important to communicate to co-workers your changing needs as you move through your cancer experience.

Prepare for Mixed Reactions

You may be surprised at the reactions you get — both good and bad. Situations like this can bring out the worst in people, but they can also bring out the best in people you would never have expected to count on for assistance. You may, in fact, find that telling people is an amazing relief and a tremendous source of support — and none of us can ever get enough of that. Chances are, you'll be surprised at how people step up to the plate and pitch in to help you out.

For Joanne W., the experience of sharing the news with her co-workers was an overwhelmingly positive one. As she has a close relationship with the people in her office, she had already informed them about finding a lump. While she expected them to be loving and supportive, she was still overwhelmed at the lengths to which they went: "When my co-workers found out it was cancer and that I would be off work for awhile, they made up a "sunshine box" and I received cards almost every day. They let me know that I was in their thoughts."

Most importantly, Joanne says her co-workers' support never waned during the entire course of her treatment, and she came to rely on them to keep her spirits up: "The biggest challenge was the first day wearing my wig. I thought it looked very much like a wig. My self-confidence was shattered at my own appearance. But I had to work, so I wore a wig. And again, my co-workers were wonderful. Everyday, they would tell me how much that wig looked like my own hair. Even when I lost my eyebrows and eyelashes, they seemed not to notice and told me how great I looked."

Karen S. had a slightly different experience since she did not disclose the specifics of her illness to all staff members. Understandably, their reactions — and her own — were a mixed bag: "The employees that knew I had cancer (managers and office staff), told me that I was tough, and they knew that I could beat the disease. The other employees were just told that I was sick, and would be out of work for a while. They didn't know what was wrong. They were afraid of what would happen if I didn't come back to work."

Shared Stories

Take it from the those who have been there. Looking back at her experience, Joanne W. admits it was extremely positive, and she encourages people to be upfront and forthcoming with their co-workers:

"My own personal experience was positive in telling my co-workers. I work with mostly women, and everyone is in the medical field. In my situation, if I had NOT told them, they would have known something was up. I guess it would depend on how much support you needed from your place of work. I had to work, and I needed them. They were there for me.

"I was lucky. My employer and co-workers were absolute gems during my treatment and even now. I still get those wonderful compliments, like, "Your hair has grown so fast," "You look so healthy," and "I am so glad you are doing so well." What better support could I have asked for?"