Welcome to Part 2 in a four-part series called Sharing Cancer at Work. This series focuses on the who, when, what, how, and shared concerns about sharing your cancer diagnosis at work.
This is an excellent series for you if:
1. You have cancer, and you work. (43.5% of those diagnosed with cancer are between the ages of 35 - 65, prime working years.)
2. You're a manager, and your employee has cancer.
3. You are an HR leader who wants to be prepared.
In Part 1: To Tell or Not to Tell, I reviewed three key questions to answer to help you make the decision whether or not to share your diagnosis at work. For managers and HR leaders, it offers great insight into common thoughts employees recently diagnosed have.
Today I discuss the seven common reactions to the news of cancer and setting expectations. (Manager and HR leaders, what do you think your reaction would be?)
Reactions to your cancer
As I write this, I have COVID. (Yes, I was vaccinated, and it kept me out of the hospital!) Every Monday, on LinkedIn, FaceBook and Instagram, I do "Monday Joke Day," where I tell a terrible joke and crack up. I hacked my way through a joke last Monday.
Why am I sharing this? The reactions I got were so different. I received messages that said, "take care of yourself!" It was suggested that I don't do Monday Joke Day because my coughing made them uncomfortable. I got several "OMG-let-me-bring-you-something!" messages as well.
Reactions to cancer are like noses; everyone has one. This is when you learn your cancer is not just about you!
A reaction is the first response to your sad news.
But they are not the only reactions you will receive, and they are often not what you expect. Your news is hard to share, and it's hard to hear. Remember...,
They are shocked too! And that shock will cause people to say uncomfortable and weirdly inappropriate things. Here are the seven common reactions.
Based on my conversation with employees affected by cancer, HR professionals, and managers who have been on the receiving end, I've identified eight common reactions to cancer news. (If you had a different experience, I'd love to know about it! Email me here! (LINK TO kimhamer@100ACTSOFLOVE.COM)
Seven Common Reactions
1. Anger. People will be angry at your diagnosis, not you. It may show up as dismissal, such as "Now is not a good time for you to have cancer!" Or "Go talk to HR about that." Or as an abrupt change of topic, such as mentioning last week's meeting that you missed.
NOTE: Anger is a cover emotion. Below anger is always another emotion, sadness, fear, lack of self-worth, embarrassment, or other feelings.
2. Comparison. These statements come from a place of wanting to bring comfort, but they are usually quite painful. A statement like "My neighbor's father's half-brother had cancer twice and survived!" is a kind of comparison statement.
3. Compassion. "I don't know what to say." "I'm sorry, I just need a minute." "This news makes me feel so sad." It's an honoring of the gravity of the situation. Being shown compassion can elicit deep emotion in you.
4. Action. "If you need anything, let me know." (Which is the LEAST helpful phrase you can utter. Their discomfort with not knowing what to do will lead them to offer to do anything!
5. Hugging and physical touch. People will want to hug you or place their hand, caringly, on your arm or shoulder. It may surprise you who those physical touchers are. Touching is a form of comfort. It causes the brain to release oxytocin, which in turn causes the release of serotonin and dopamine. And guess what those do? They lower your stress. Your news will stress out the person you are delivering it to.
6. Selfish. People will make your cancer about them. An example of selfish responses are, "But how will we finish the project?" Or "You can't have cancer. I'm supposed to be on vacation next week."
7. Silence. People will greet your news with silence. Silence can be sweet, like they are taking in this sad news. Or uncomfortable like the shuffling of paperwork, the clearing of a throat, or nervously looking away and checking Slack.
8. Tears. People will spontaneously burst into tears. It will surprise them as much as it surprises you.
NOTE: As an HR professional, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the laws around unwanted touching at work. If the person you are sharing the news with has made you feel uncomfortable in the past by inappropriate comments or touches, then be sure to keep your distance and state that you do not want to be touched or hugged. And you can deliver the news via Zoom or with someone else. concerned about controlling the message, I advise against this for the moment. (You can make that statement no matter what the situation is!)
Here is what is most important to remember.
Their reaction is not about you.
You have cancer, which is very much about you. But your cancer is not just about you. Your cancer is a pebble in a pond. And everyone in that pond feels the effects of it. Your cancer will affect parts of the pond that you didn't know existed.
Setting Your Expectations
"I didn't expect them to react like that!" said Barbara, one of my clients. She had denied she had any expectations of how her boss should have reacted. But when her boss did not meet those hidden expectations, she felt hurt.
In most situations, the conversations you have around your cancer will not go as you expect. Surprising people with cancer news often solicit strong emotions, as you saw above, even if some of those emotions will be buried deep down.
Expectations are resentments under construction.
If you expect someone to act in a certain way and don't follow suit, you may feel resentful because they didn't follow your script. You know, the one you planned out in your head but DID NOT SHARE with anyone.
It's hard to not have expectations. You want to be witnessed. That is often what sharing is mainly about. We want others to say, "Oh wow, oh wow, oh no," with us, so we don't feel alone. And that is normal.
What is also standard (at least in the US) is outlining how you think others should react to your cancer. That's a losing battle and will make you feel miserable on top of your miserable diagnosis.
How To Not Set Expectations
Honestly, this is a conversation that should be between you and your therapist! :) Our expectations are born from how we think we'd react, how we'd like to be treated, media, and other deep-seated issues! We can't help but have expectations. However, if you get honest about your expectations, the less hurt you'll feel when you share your news.
This suggestion will not make your expectations go away, but it can help keep them grounded. The best thing you can do is to be open and not take anything personally. I know, way easier said than done!
Right before you deliver your news, ask yourself, "How do I think they should act?" and you will see what expectation you are holding on to. At that point, it is best to let that go and say to yourself, "Let the chaos be!" Cancer causes all kinds of chaos. You might as well start getting used to it now.
Sharing your cancer news with others will not be easy, but it will be rewarding because your coworkers will surprise you!
But what do you say, and who will you tell? That's the next article in the series. (This is particularly important for managers affected by cancer.)
Until then, you matter!