Welcome to Part 4, the final part of The Sharing Cancer at Work series. This series focused on the who, when, what, how, and general concerns about sharing your cancer diagnosis at work.
This is an excellent series for you if:
1. You have cancer, and you work.
2. You are a manager, and your employee has cancer.
3. You are an HR leader and know of an employee in your company who has cancer.
For managers and HR leaders, it offers great insight into common thoughts employees recently diagnosed have.
Part 1: To Tell or Not to Tell
Part 3: Whom to Tell
WHAT TO SAY
One of the first people my husband shared his cancer diagnosis with was his boss. He trusted and liked Tom. And on some level, I think Art knew that Tom would be able to help him. One of the first conversations Tom had with my late husband was who else do you want to know?
Art was lucky. He didn’t have to think about what to say until he and Tom had a plan in place and had developed a communication plan. By then, Art knew exactly what he would say. But he also realized, there is no one perfect way to share the news of your cancer.
Sharing your cancer news with others can cause them emotional chaos. It’s not what you want to do, but it is what happens. The levels of emotional chaos are determined by the depths of your relationships and by their own experiences. Almost everyone over the age of 35 has
thoughts on cancer, if not direct experiences with someone with cancer.
Those experiences mean that their reactions when you share the news of your cancer are not all about you. When someone has a less than hoped-for reaction, taking what they say personally is not wise. It’s not just about you.
Here is what I do know, your feelings when you share your cancer diagnosis will vary. You will feel nervous or sad or loved or hopeful or scared or, most commonly, all of them! Emotions make your brain turn to mush, and that is why I highly recommend you write down what you’re going to say, either an outline or word for word. It will help you feel more in control of your message.
Now, onto what to say. I have included a few phrases below, but I hope the outline will be the most useful.
STATE THE FACTS
“I have cancer. I know this news is shocking.”
Share how you think the treatment will affect work. “The treatment I’m receiving will result in my being able to work at least part-time from home. Let’s set another time to discuss my projects, my team or develop a work plan. (Obviously, you have spoken to your oncologist and know what to expect.) Remember, you do not need to share the kind of cancer or the specifics of your treatment.
SET YOUR BOUNDARIES
“Please do not share this information.” Or “It is ok to share this information with others.”
First, state whether you want this information shared. Second, share what you are willing to hear and what you aren’t. “While you may want to share the cancer stories of others, like your neighbor’s mother-in-law’s battle with cancer three times, please refrain. Those stories make me feel overwhelmed. I am open to cards, emails, and terrible jokes, so please do share those!”
Second, point them in a direction if they want to help. “If you want to help, please get in touch with ____ (your work point-person). They will be organizing support. And thank you!
OPEN UP TO QUESTIONS
“Do you have any questions?” This is optional. However, if you are leading a team or talking to your boss, it might be prudent to ask because answering questions will allay fears.
You will have to repeat yourself, often. Many people won’t hear you the first time beyond, “I have cancer.” It will take their brains a beat (or day) or two to process what you said and even longer to form questions.
LOOP IN HUMAN RESOURCE
Don’t forget to loop in HR, with the caveat mentioned in Part Three. Inquire about FMLA, state disability (if available), ADA, and any additional cancer benefits the company’s insurance, or EAP might have available.
DON’T DROP A CANCER BOMB
You have been living with your cancer way longer than those who are hearing it for the first time. Give them the space and time to let the news sink in. Your news is a pebble in a pond, and it will affect many in ways that you can’t predict and in corners that you will be unaware of.
Get on people’s calendars or ask to speak with them for 15-minutes in private. If you’re not sure how much you want to disclose, see three kinds of disclosing styles.
IT’S NOT ONE AND DONE
Lastly, your conversations are not a one and done! Your boss will have questions about your ability to work and your plans for essential projects. Your team may be wondering who they should report to in your absence. You may find yourself in the role of educator. I even heard of one manager who put together a 3 -part series about cancer at work! He even brought in his oncologist and an oncology social worker!
You don’t have to go that far, but know one conversation will not be enough. If you are unsure who you want to share your cancer diagnosis with, it is always better to air on the side of telling only a few. You can always tell more people, but you can’t un-tell anyone.
Finally, this is just the beginning. Things will settle at work. People will get used to you having cancer and may even forget! This discomfort you, and they will eventually dissipate, and you will settle into a new normal.
This concludes the four-part series on how to share your cancer at work. For the next series, I’ll be discussing what to do (and not to do) when you’re the receiver of cancer news at work.
If you would like guidance in deciding to share your cancer diagnosis at work or how to manage your message, please click here.