It’s hard to anticipate how people will react or respond to the disclosure of a cancer diagnosis and, unfortunately, sometimes even the reaction of a well-intended person won’t be the right one for you in that moment. Try not to take it personally if a co-worker or boss makes an awkward or insensitive comment. As challenging as it can be to not get hung up on any uncomfortable feelings that arise, the key is to keep the conversation moving forward and focused on your job, if that is your preference.
Below, we’ve offered four examples of possible comments that could be encountered at work along with sample responses. The first two scenarios below employ “the Swivel”, which is simply a technique that allows you to acknowledge the question or comment and then redirect — or swivel — the conversation to something you are more comfortable with and more professionally oriented. For more uses of the Swivel, click here and here. The last two examples utilize a more direct approach to responding to the question, but ultimately, they also turn the focus back to work too.
- Your boss says: “You’ve been looking so exhausted recently, I didn’t want to overwhelm you by adding more to your plate.”
- Response: “I appreciate your concern, but I’m actually feeling great. In fact, last night I had some ideas about the project that I’d love to share with you.” OR “I appreciate your concern, but work is a key part of my overall wellbeing. In fact, last night I had some ideas about the project that I’d love to share with you.”
- After sharing some sensitive information, a co-worker says: “Things could always be worse!”
- Response: “Yes, keeping things in perspective is certainly important and, actually, I’d love to get your thoughts on an experience I had with a customer the other day.”
- After disclosing your diagnosis, your supervisor says: “Did you smoke?” (or “Did you drink?” or “Did you tan?”)
- Response: “There is a lot of confusion, complexity and fear around cancer so I can understand that you’d be curious about whether I somehow brought this on myself, however, what is important now is how we can work together to make sure that all our goals are still met while I balance both work and treatment. My job is incredibly important to me so I hope we can collaborate to come up with the best plan of attack.”
- A coworker says: “Metastatic? Doesn’t that mean you’re dying? How can you work?”
- Response: “There is a lot of confusion, complexity and fear around cancer so I can understand that you’d have questions about what that word means. However, a lot of people continue to live full, productive lives for many years after receiving that diagnosis, and, for me, contributing to the work we do so the team can continue meeting goals and deadlines is part of that.”
It's important to note, disclosure is a uniquely personal and complex decision and not everyone who discloses a cancer diagnosis discloses the specifics of the stage or treatment plan or other details. As you consider utilizing the above, please make sure you understand that you have every right to decide whether to share, how much and to whom.
For more on disclosure and communicating with others at work, check out the following:
- Sharing the News
- Recasting Yourself After Cancer
- Setting Professional Boundaries
- "The Swivel” in Interviews
- Your Legal Rights in the Workplace: Cancer and the ADA, FMLA