When I started working at Cancer and Careers, one of the first things I learned about were the considerations that go into whether to disclose a cancer diagnosis in the workplace or not. The choice is a deeply personal decision that depends on a number of factors (an individual’s comfort with people knowing their medical information, the culture of a workplace, the type of treatment or side effects and how they might affect one’s ability to work at the same level they were pre-diagnosis, how those side effects may change someone’s physical appearance, etc.). While I have not personally gone through cancer treatment, the disclosure conversation was something that immediately resonated with me and made me feel like I had an authentic way to connect to our content with my own story.
I have been openly gay for all my adult life and have been lucky to always work in supportive environments where it’s never been a question of whether or not I need to keep it private. Being around a community of support, creativity and acceptance (both at home and at work) brings bliss constantly into my life. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t disclosure decisions that I make every day. Just like someone with a cancer diagnosis, when I meet new people, I immediately start to assess how they may react to my personal life. It is irrelevant in most work conversations (as is a cancer diagnosis), and I could do my job almost the exact same way if coworkers or other people I’m interacting with in a professional capacity don’t know a thing about me outside of work. But personally, I am more comfortable when I don’t have to worry about pronouns if I’m telling a story about a trip I took with a partner or locking down my Instagram account so no one can see what I’m posting about. And I know for some of CAC’s community this is also true, there is an extra burden to having to expend that additional energy on monitoring every word being said.
Of course, while I wish the world were full of people who were informed and non-judgmental, sadly that is not a reality. The Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that workplace discrimination toward the LGBTQIA+ community falls under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and is therefore unconstitutional. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects most workers with a cancer diagnosis to similar protections against discrimination in the workplace. But sadly, we hear about discrimination cases still from people being treated differently or fired as a result of their cancer diagnosis, while lawmakers around the country are trying to undermine the Civil Rights Act with anti-queer legislation. This shared fear of discrimination is a major reason why people might not disclose a cancer diagnosis or feel comfortable coming out as a member of the queer community at work. It is important to recognize that fear isn’t the only reason a person might not disclose a diagnosis on-the-job, or be out at work. Again, these are very personal decisions that everyone needs to make for themselves, taking into account their unique circumstances, preferences and needs.
For me personally, these decisions start as early as reading a job description before I even apply. I’ve used Glassdoor, LinkedIn or even just a broad Google search of the company to see how they are rated or if I can find any discrimination complaints made. Recommendations we make every day to people looking for work after a diagnosis. Even seeing pronouns listed on a staff page on their website can give an indication that the organization makes an effort to be inclusive. In an interview, I find I code-switch the most, presenting a very buttoned up (but still personable) version of myself, while I try to get a sense of who I’m meeting with and the culture of the work environment. On my first day at a new job, I meet co-workers and try to ask questions that might give me some answers about their attitudes and beliefs. Nothing is perfect and I’ve been caught off-guard before, but all of that information gathering helps me decide how much of my personal life I allow to leak into my work-persona. This all aligns with the kind of guidance CAC gives to people when it comes to being strategic during a job search, which you can read about in more detail here.
While this is not a one-to-one comparison of experiences, I think we can all learn from others. And most importantly, learn how to support our coworkers with whatever background they are bringing to the workplace. Our individual experiences (including challenges we have overcome, anxieties we are still working through, or goals we still want to accomplish) are what make us all unique people who can bring something to the table that no one else can. The more we can support each other and find commonalities across life experiences, the more we can all thrive in our work and offer honest empathy moving forward.
For more information on the intersection of queerness and cancer:
• Check out our recent blog spotlighting three incredible organizations serving LGBTQIA+ patients and survivors.
• Learn more about researching employers for LGBTQIA+ inclusion
• Read about the National LGBT Cancer Network’s BIPOC Report