Be the Boss Over Cancer

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Your boss? Your coworkers? Human resources? The answer depends on you and your experience in your work environment. First, determine who really needs to know and start by talking to those people who make you feel most comfortable. If you're completely in doubt, start with HR and let their experience help guide and support you through the "telling" process.

Your Boss

Telling your boss can be uncomfortable, but it can actually protect you in the long run. If you find yourself confronted with some type of discriminatory behavior in the workplace, remember that the Americans with Disabilities Act only protects you if you've made your employer aware of your disease (for more information about the ADA and for specific information on your situation contact the National Cancer Legal Services Network or In other words, what your boss doesn't know could wind up hurting you.

Then again, you might be pleasantly surprised at the reactions you get. As many of us have discovered, our bosses can turn out to be far more than just supervisors. They can be sources of strength, hope and encouragement, far outside the professional realm. Joanne W. found immediate relief and support when she disclosed her news to her immediate supervisor: "My supervisor's reaction was warm and loving. She gave me a hug and cried with me. Then she told me that she would 'take care of everything'."

For more help in approaching your supervisor, check out the Manager's Toolkit.

Management and/or Human Resources

Your boss may not be the only member of management who needs to know — especially if you're part of the management team. Once you disclose your diagnosis to your boss, he/she has the right to share the information with human resources and any supervisors or managers who will be affected. If you have good relationships with those managers, you might find it in your best interest to tell them yourself.

You should also talk to your Human Resources department. They will have considerable information about your company's policies and experience with cancer survivors and may have valuable advice on how to tell people and what to expect.

Your Co-Workers

What about your co-workers? Should you tell them? If so, who? It's impossible to provide guidelines that apply to everyone. The answer lies in your company's corporate culture as well as in the relationships you share with your co-workers.

Assessing the Corporate Culture

You're going to need to make an assessment of your company's corporate culture and how you fit into the scheme of things. Ask yourself the following:

  • What is the general attitude of the employees? Are we more like a family or strictly business?
  • What are the differences in the types of relationships I have with different employees?
  • Who do I consider a good friend, both inside and outside the office?
  • Who do I feel I can trust with matters both personal and professional?
  • Has there been another instance of someone with cancer, and how was it treated?
  • How do people generally react to the news of a co-worker's illness? With resentment for having to 'take up the slack' or by rallying to support their team member?

Analyzing these aspects will help you predict how your news will be received and help you decide who to tell — and how. When we say ' trust your instincts,' it's not a cop-out for lack of better advice; you know your work environment better than anyone.

When Bigger Is Not Always Better

While there are exceptions to the rule, larger corporate environments can often be rather impersonal. You may not even know all the other employees and may take comfort in a certain degree of anonymity. And if you're in a high-stress, highly competitive position, you might feel very strongly about not letting co-workers know. Remember, that's your choice too.

For example, even though Karen S. told her immediate supervisors, as the general manager of an electronics manufacturing firm, she found herself under pressure from sales staff to keep her cancer a secret from her employees and customers: "The sales staff felt that it would jeopardize business if our customers thought that the person in charge might die of cancer, and it would put their product at risk if there was nobody to run the business. Keeping cancer a secret is very difficult when you lose all of your hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, and you look sick too! I wore a wig and tried to conceal as much as possible with makeup, but in my eyes, I could see it all over me when I would look in a mirror."

If you work for a smaller company — or a tight knit department in a larger one — there may be a more family-like, nurturing atmosphere. You may spend as much time with your co-workers as your family and find it inconceivable to get through this experience without sharing the news. Let the individual relationships you have with the men and women around you dictate who you tell.

For Armilda Y., telling her co-workers was the natural next step to telling her employer. As an accounts payable manager for an insurance company, Armilda was close with her staff: "I first told my immediate supervisor and controller as soon as I returned to the office after the initial biopsy. I then called my staff of eight together and told them...I felt they needed to know from the start."

Who to Tell When You're the Employer

If you're one of the thousands of people who own their own businesses, you obviously don't have to tell the boss. However, there's the equally difficult decision of whether or not to tell your employees. Your decision may be complicated by the fact that it's not just a personal one — it's an issue that affects the morale and well-being of your company.

Even if you'd like to keep mum and avoid worrying your employees, take a look at the corporate culture you've worked so hard to create and how your treatment will fit into it — especially how your absences or changes in appearance may affect your employees.

If you're regularly out of the office drumming up business, entertaining clients or monitoring your company's progress remotely from the comfort of your own home, your employees will think nothing of your absences. When you're in chemotherapy, they'll assume you're in your home office, crunching numbers. It doesn't affect their day-to-day duties and activities, so there may be no reason to tell.

However, if you have a strong physical presence in your company, it's a different picture. Employees who begin to notice your unusually frequent absences may worry. Worse yet, they may talk, and before you know it, rumors far worse than the truth are making their way around the office. Consider sharing your diagnosis with a trusted VP or assistant. Then let them handle explaining your absences — after all, it was their creativity and quick thinking that got them hired in the first place, right?

Many business owners, however, pride themselves on creating a work environment with open communication at the heart. In such a case, you probably have a close enough relationship with your employees to bring them together and share the news. They'll appreciate your frankness as an expression of trust, and they'll be grateful to know what to expect and how it will affect the company (read: them.)