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What To Do When Your Boss Has Cancer

Art's boss was the third person we called the day my late husband, Art, was diagnosed with cancer. We were still in the doctor's office. The cancer was so advanced that one week after diagnosis, he was having chemo.

But I do know the team was afraid for him and tried to put on a brave face for him and the students. There was an incredible outpouring of support. I know that they cared about him.

Let's face it; whether you love your manager or not, they play a central role in your job and your life. If you're lucky, your manager motivates and inspires you to do good work or serves as your mentor. Or your manager is a bit self-centered or inexperienced and makes work a struggle to enjoy or grow.

But no matter the kind of manager you have, when they are diagnosed with cancer, it's not just about them and their cancer; it affects you and your coworkers. Coping with a boss with cancer is filled with emotions, and if you're not used to being emotionally uncomfortable, their cancer can create a great deal of stress and confusion in you.

Today, I want to share the three most common reactions employees have when their boss shares their cancer diagnosis!


"I was terrified for him!" said Patti S., an employee of a manager with cancer. When a manager shares their cancer diagnosis, we often conjure images of skinny bald people "fighting for their lives." And while that image is not wrong, it is overly prevalent and causes us to jump to conclusions that only increase the fear. Our managers often represent a sense of security or at least a sense of familiarity. (If your boss is a jerk, you know how he's going to be a jerk.) And when they get cancer, that security feels like it's gone.

The fear you experience can be about your boss, like Patti, but you can fear for your job, the company, your health, and the unknown. Not knowing what is going to happen is unsettling. Fear is a normal response but left unchecked, and it can affect your productivity and ability to support your manager.


Patti also talked about feeling guilty because she began to worry about her job and felt that was an incorrect response to her boss's cancer. She almost canceled a week's vacation because she felt like she couldn't go on vacation while her boss was sick. You may feel like you can't ask your manager questions about work or seek their advice on an issue.

Some employees feel guilty because their first thought wasn't about their boss but was about themselves and what their cancer means for their work or career. That response is normal and does not reflect who you are as a person.


Sadness is by far the most common reaction to a boss's cancer diagnosis. Sadness is a complex emotion because it leaves one feeling powerless. I remember a coworker of my husband confessing to me the sadness that she couldn't shake about Art's cancer. You can't fix sadness. And that inability can feel overwhelming.

What to do?

I was thinking about how I would wrap up this post with a neat list of steps you can take to get through your emotions. But here's the thing. You can't step your way out of emotion. You have to move through it. So, the only advice I have is this:

  • Emotions are not facts.

  • No emotion lasts forever, including happiness. Whatever you feel when you hear the diagnosis is NOT how you will always feel.

  • Fear is a liar. But it talks to you in your own voice and seems to make sense. It can be hard to detect.

  • The bodily sensation of emotion lasts 90 seconds! (Read the book by Joan Rosenberg called 90 Seconds to a Live You Love!

You got this! Sitting with the feelings about your boss's cancer will make a more vital and capable employee, one your boss will need!

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