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How to discuss your cancer diagnosis with your boss and work colleagues

Published: 04 Sep 2017

Discussing your cancer diagnosis with anyone is difficult, but many people find it particularly challenging breaking the news to their boss and work colleagues.

It’s natural to not want an illness in your personal life to compromise your career, however the fact is that fighting cancer will impact your work performance in many ways – from the mental strain of dealing with your diagnosis, to the physical health impact of undergoing grueling treatments such as chemotherapy.

So, what’s the best way to break the news to both your boss and your work peers, and what information should you share with them to create the most supportive work environment throughout your cancer treatment?

Make sure you’re prepared

Many people find it difficult to get the right words out when you’re trying to have a sensitive conversation. One of the best things you can do is to prepare in advance; make it clear in your mind what you need and want to say, and also any questions you may wish to ask. 
 
Get all the details straightened out in your head and/or on paper – the type of cancer you’ve been diagnosed with, its stage of development, what treatment plan your doctor has recommended, when this treatment is likely to start – so that you have all the facts to hand. This way, if people have questions, you won’t have to scramble around for the answer.
 
Another valuable way to prepare is to check your employment contract and company handbook, to see if they outline any entitlements and rights if you’re suffering from a serious illness. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification or further information on these policies, to understand exactly how the company will support you during your treatment. 

Find the right time and place to talk to people

Telling your colleagues you have cancer isn’t a casual, five-minute conversation over the water cooler. For most people the usual first step is to break the news to your boss, before having separate conversations with your wider team.  

Arrange a private meeting with your boss to inform them of your illness, and discuss how it will potentially impact your ability to work. You may find it easier to bring a trusted friend with you for support – perhaps someone you are close to at work that you’ve already told. 
 
You might want a member of the HR team present for the conversation, or speak to them first, as they will be familiar with the company’s policies regarding serious illness. They can also help to ensure you have the right support framework in place during your treatment.
 
When it comes to having the conversation, understand that your boss – like all your colleagues – is likely to be shocked. They will probably have many questions for you, so make sure you have adequate time and privacy to discuss your diagnosis.

Be honest about how cancer might affect your ability to work

There’s no point saying your cancer battle won’t affect your work, because for most people, it will. We’ll be discussing this in more detail in an upcoming blog, but it’s important to be honest about the fact you’ll need to take some time off to put your personal health first. 
 
Many workplaces have support procedures in place for staff going through cancer treatment. Even if they don’t, most companies are willing to make arrangements that enable you to continue working, but also have the time off you need for treatments – sometimes by arranging temporary cover when you are undergoing chemotherapy. 
 
Equally, your boss may be willing to offer flexi-time or a regular working from home option while you’re battling cancer, helping to reduce the pressure on your workload so you can focus on getting better. 

Understand the wider impact of your diagnosis

Many people who are diagnosed with cancer think about how ‘time off’ will affect their work and how to broach the subject with their boss, but many don’t take time to think through how (and if) it will affect others in the company. 
 
We all know that news travels fast, so think about whether you want to make your cancer fight common knowledge at work, or share it confidentially among a small but trusted team of colleagues. 
 
Telling everyone can create an accommodating and understanding work atmosphere, especially among teammates who work directly with you. However, you may want to retain some sense of ‘normality’ in your work life, and fear that sharing your diagnosis widely will result in special treatment.
 
There is no right or wrong answer here, but if you do want to limit the number of people who know you have cancer, make sure those you tell understand that this information is private. 
 
If you feel the word is starting to get around before you’re ready, and there are whispered conversations taking place that are making you feel uneasy it may be time to take control. Ask your boss to send an official email around or arrange a chat with the team, rather than people finding out under the radar and being unsure of how to act around you. 
 
Be honest with your workmates about how you’re feeling, and the impact that cancer is likely to have on you as both a colleague and companion. Don’t be afraid to advise them how they should react around you during the course of your treatment.
 
Most importantly, keep your boss and colleagues up-to-date with how your treatment is going. Support is critical when battling cancer, and if you feel that you’re working in a caring and supporting environment, it will take a huge weight off your mind.