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Your Cancer Bias is Hurting Your Team

If you have an employee with cancer, your cancer bias may be hurting you, your team, and the employee with cancer.

What are biases?

Biases are putting a disproportionate weight in favor of, or against, an idea, thing or person and are innate or learned. Our brains take in a crapload of information every single day. Biases are shortcuts our brains create to help us sift through the massive amounts of information we process.

Why is that bad?

Actually, it's not always bad. But it's usually not good when it comes to people different from you. Since we are wired to make decisions quickly and can't know everything about everyone, we fill in the blanks of what we don't know with information from past experiences or stories we have seen or heard. And that includes the things we think we know about cancer.

The biggest problem with bias is that "most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased. We imagine we're good decision-makers, able to objectively size up a job candidate or reach a fair and rational conclusion that's in our, and our organization's, best interests," writes Harvard University researcher Mahzarin Banaji in Harvard Business Review. "But more than two decades of research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our inflated self-perception."

What are cancer biases?

Cancer biases are the ideas, thoughts, and judgments you hold about what it means to have cancer. Even if you had cancer, chances are your biases are based on your own experience, not that of different cancer experiences.

"We are so powerfully guided by the things we expect to be true in the world," says Brian Welle, director of people analytics at Google, in a video promoting unconscious bias in the workplace.

As humans, we don't realize how attached we are to the idea that we can assess something by looking at it, which is part of the problem!

This simple obsession that we are right in our perceptions can tank an employee's experience with your company, as they navigate their cancer journey and can negatively affect your team.

Six ways to combat cancer biases

Fortunately, there are things you can do right now to combat your cancer bias patterns, and as a bonus, these steps will also help you combat your implicit biases. Two for the price of one!

  1. Hang out with people with cancer or with people who are different from you. According to, in 2021, there were approximately 1.9 million new cancer cases in the US. To break a pattern, you have to interact with someone with cancer. With social media, it's much easier to follow someone with cancer and to see what a true cancer experience is like. (But be aware of biases there too!) Also, you employee with cancer is an excellent place to start.

  1. Notice positive examples. Research shows that bias responds to current input. So new experiences will trump old experiences. Notice how you react when a person you follow with cancer does something that you see as unexpected. Do you say "Wow, they're brave!" when they laugh about their cancer or try to go about their regular life? That "wow their brave exclamation" is a big clue into your own bias. Why do you think they are brave for having fun? What do you believe a person with cancer should do or be like?

  1. Talk to yourself differently. It's one thing to say, "I will not be biased." It's another to say, "I will repeat the words' hard worker,' every time I see or think about the employee with cancer." Here's an example of how this works. There is a pervasive (and inaccurate) stereotype that Black folks are more likely to commit crimes than people of other races. Even if we consciously disbelieve this stereotype, your implicit bias will lead to committing behaviors that prove you still believe this. A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study found that people who intentionally said the word "safe" to themselves each time they encountered a Black person effectively undid implicit bias by creating a new and more positive stereotype. Interesting right?

  1. Change the way you do things. Often, we're stuck in negative patterns without realizing it. This is very true when it comes to an employee with cancer. Instead of focusing on getting a project done and then thinking the best way to do that is to remove the employee with cancer from the project, why not change the pattern and ask the employee with cancer what they feel they can accomplish while they are in treatment?

  1. Heighten your awareness. Once you become aware of something, you can't be unaware again. Make an effort to notice how your perceptions are shaped around cancer.

  1. Take care of yourself. Taking care of yourself plays a big role in how your cancer bias affects you and your team. That's because when we're tired or stressed, we're aren't as good at processing new information, and we fall back on our unconscious biases. So before you have that meeting with that employee with cancer, go for a walk and eat a healthy snack! It will do wonders for your ability to be open.

The moment you respect biases is when you up level your management and coaching skills. Biases are nothing to be ashamed of. Many of our biases have been learned from an early age simply by observing those around us. But now that you know and have the tools to combat your biases if you do nothing, you remain part of the problem.

The choice as always, is yours.

This is a great video about general bias. And yes, you do have implicit biases. We all do. It's unconscious so have very little control over it UNTIL you admit, examine it, and make a conscious effort to stop it. Please stop saying otherwise!

Not sure how to show up for your employee, coworker or friend with cancer? Get my book and never feel uncomfortable again!

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