To Tell or Not to Tell: How To Decide Whether Or Not to Reveal Your Cancer Diagnosis


photo credit to Miguel A. Amutio on Unsplash

(This is Part 1 of a 4-part series that covers how to manage cancer and work.)


“I only told my right hand man and the clients we were in mid-project with.”


“I don’t want to tell anyone. I don’t want to hear their bullshit.”


"I told my boss, and together, we came up with a communication plan that did ease the team's anxiety."


This is how a few of my clients managed their cancer while working.


"Should I tell my boss, team, and coworkers?" is the most common question I get from clients.


Here's the thing: deciding whether or not to tell and whom to tell is a very personal decision. In my work, the response runs on a spectrum from it's essential to disclose your diagnosis to believe that privacy is crucial.


You don't have to disclose anything. Your employer can't ask about your medical situation unless (and this is important) they believe a medical condition is negatively affecting job performance or workplace safety.

No matter what you decide, your decision will affect those around you, even if you choose not to share your diagnosis.


Here are three things to consider as you make your decision.


Work Culture


For me, this is an essential consideration. You have cancer, and understanding your work culture will help you decide what and how much, if anything, to disclose. According to the web, there are anywhere between 4 – 8 kinds of work cultures. But this article by Katie Heinz on BuiltIn.com offers clear definitions of the four most common types mentioned: Clan, Adhocracy, Hierarchy, and Market.


In short, clan or adhocracy cultures are more flexible, and employee engagement focused. Because of this, these cultures will probably be more accommodating and supportive. If you are in a hierarchy or market culture, there may be less understanding. Your choices will be more Option A or Option B, with little gray. Of course, these are gross generalizations. A lot also depends on who you report and your relationship with your team.


But the point is, take a look at the culture of your team and your organization. It can help you anticipate what would happen if you reveal your diagnosis. Will someone make a play for your territory, or will they do what they can to keep your customers happy?


In addition, ask yourself these questions below.


  • Has anyone else at work had cancer? What was their experience?

  • In general, how have others reacted to coworkers who have been ill in the past?

  • Is your company a keep-to-themselves company, or is it a small-close-knit-feels-like family company?

  • What kinds of relationships do you have with your team and coworkers? Do you share personal information, or does everyone keep their private lives separate for the most part?

  • Are you a segmentor or an integrator? (Click here to find out.)

  • Is there anyone you can trust with personal as well as professional matters?


Asking yourself these questions will help you make a good-in-the-moment decision. And that is all you can hope for. This is cancer; you have the right to change your mind anytime you want! Still not sure what you want to share? It is always better if you err on the side of under-sharing first than oversharing. You can share more later. However, if you share your diagnosis, the proverbial cat is out of the bag, and there is no getting it back in!


The Law

Not revealing your diagnosis can affect your ability to protect your job and/or make doing your job easier while you have cancer.


Two primary laws can help you. (Some states offer additional protection like California). The laws are the Federal Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). FMLA can help you take time off that you need without the threat of losing your job.


ADA can help you get reasonable accommodations (including modifying your work schedule) while undergoing treatment. It can also protect you after you have finished treatment.


You do not need to specify that you have cancer. However, keep in mind that whoever is in charge of receiving and submitting forms for the ADA or FMLA in your organization will know what your diagnosis is.


Depending on your diagnosis and your company's culture, these laws could be essential to you and your career.


Now… let's talk about side effects, another vital factor in disclosure!



The Side Effects

I have not met a cancer patient who said, 'The side effects were way less intense than what I expected!"


As my husband once politely but sternly reminded me, during his second entanglement with cancer, "Sweetheart, you have NO IDEA what fatigue is!" I pass his words onto you.


Whatever your treatment plan is, even if it's just surgery, there will be side effects, physical and mental. Suppose you are receiving chemo and/or radiation. In that case, some of the common side effects are what you imagine: fatigue, nausea, chemo brain, and physical discomfort. But that depends on the chemo, the dose, the length of time you're on it!


Your mental health is also a side effect. Many people with cancer underestimate the power of their feelings and how those feelings affect their day-to-day lives. Anxiety, depression, rage, deep sadness are all normal but are often overlooked. No matter what kind of cancer warrior you are, you will have moments of fear.


And all of these side effects can change your productivity, and your team will notice. Frequent doctor's appointments or other absences will also be noticeable. And people will notice if you lose your hair. If your team and peers notice the difference, it will be easier to control HOW the cat gets out of the bag, instead of your team seeing that it's out of the bag.



Before you make any decisions...

Ensure you understand your diagnosis, the treatment plan, and the expected outcome (if you wish.) I always suggest you have all the information before you share. Depending on the tests you need, your doctor, and the seriousness of the symptoms, you could have a diagnosis in days, or it could take a few weeks. Having all the information you need about your cancer plays a vital role in deciding if you want to reveal your diagnosis.



Controlling Your Message


If you decide to reveal your diagnosis, it puts you in the driver's seat to control your message. Notice, I didn't say control how other people respond. I said, control your message! Part 2 will discuss how to control your message.


Want to learn more or discuss your plan? Click here to set up a time to chat.




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