Telling Employers and Coworkers About Your Diagnosis

Updated 
August 31, 2015

Deciding to tell your coworkers about your breast cancer diagnosis can be hard.

You may want to maintain your privacy, especially as you are working to understand your diagnosis and weighing your treatment options. You may not want to make yourself vulnerable to probing questions, unwanted medical opinions or sympathy. You may also worry that you’ll be viewed as incapable of taking on a challenging assignment or promotion.

On the other hand, your coworkers are an everyday part of your life and having their practical and emotional support could be very helpful. Your diagnosis and treatment may involve appointments during work hours or you may have to take days off because of side effects. You may feel more comfortable being direct about why you may not be at work and how your work will be handled when you are out of the office.

Your coworkers may also be some of your closest friends, so it may be very natural to include them in the circle of people you tell about your breast cancer diagnosis. Many people going through serious medical challenges find allies in unlikely places. There may be a coworker who has gone through what you are experiencing.

No matter what your decision, remember that it is up to you to decide what to disclose and when. You may want to consider the pros and cons of sharing your medical condition over email, rather than in person.

Telling Your Boss or Supervisor

How much to tell your supervisor or boss is another decision. You are not obligated to tell your boss the details of your medical conditioninfo-icon. You may find it helpful to give a general sense of what is going on, especially if you are going to need time off work or flexible hours to accommodate doctor’s appointments, treatments and testing.

Check with your human resources department or your employee manual about what you are entitled to as far as sick days, vacation, paid time off, and medical and unpaid leaves in case you need them for treatments and recovery.

If you can continue to perform the essential duties of your job and you work for a private employer with 15 or more employees, you may ask for a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Those accommodations may include

  • flexible or shortened hours
  • time off for treatment
  • use of employer phones, email or fax machines to reach your doctors.

There are also some state and local laws governing medical-related time off.

It’s unlikely you are the first one in the office to have a major medical issue. Your human resources department is there to help explain your company benefits to you.

Don’t hesitate to seek out advice from your health care team, accountant, financial advisor, and/or attorney as you make decisions related to work, medical leave, and disability benefits.

Moving Forward

As you progress through treatment, you will also be faced with how to deal with questions from your workers. You may find it useful to establish boundaries by keeping conversations focused on the work. You likely will appreciate having a good chunk of your time when you are seen as a professional and not a breast cancer patient. Again, you are not obligated to provide updates or reveal details if a coworker asks, “How are you?” If someone persists in seeking out personal details, smile and say something like “Thanks for asking. Now where were we?”

More In Finding, Changing or Losing Your Job

Article August 31, 2015