How to tell your boss you have cancer

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Part of dealing with a new cancer diagnosis involves deciding how to let those around you know what’s happening. While you’ll probably want your loved ones to know about your diagnosis and treatment, deciding whether to tell your employer can be a more challenging process.

Here are some tips if you’re weighing the decision to share your cancer diagnosis at work.

Start with a clear picture of your treatment. Before you go to your employer, talk with your doctor about what to expect. Ask whether you’ll need time off to recover from chemotherapy or surgery. It’s also a good idea to ask how other people typically feel during and after your types of treatment. Let your doctors and nurses know what your job involves and ask what type of work schedule they might recommend. This also makes them aware of another important aspect of your life that is being affected by your cancer care.

Make a list of work-related changes you think you might need while you’re in treatment. For example, if you’re worried you’ll feel tired or ill after chemotherapy, note that you may need to change your work schedule or take certain days off.

If you’re worried about approaching your boss with such requests, keep in mind that federal laws protect cancer patients from discrimination. For example, employers are legally required to help you do your job during or after cancer treatment by providing reasonable accommodations, such as an adjusted work schedule or time off for doctor’s appointments.

You may also want to talk to your human resources department about work accommodations you may need during treatment.

As you make your plans, be sure to enlist the help of others. Think about how friends or family may help. And take time to talk with a professional, such as a social worker, who can help you address the challenges of managing work and cancer care.

Decide who to tell. While you aren’t required to tell your employer or coworkers about your diagnosis, you may get questions if you miss a lot of work or your productivity lags.

Rather than not telling anyone, you might want to tell just a few people, such as your boss or coworkers you trust. Or you might decide to tell everyone, depending on your work environment. The most important factor in this decision is your comfort, so do what you feel is best for you.

Use this as an opportunity to educate. Whether you’re talking to your boss or your coworkers, think of your conversation as a chance to help others understand what you’ll be going through. People often have a lot of misconceptions about cancer. They may assume it’s going to be terrible and you’ll never be able to work during treatment, but that’s not necessarily the case.

While every situation is different and there’s no crystal ball, many people continue to work successfully through treatment. You could also use this as a chance to let others know where and when you might need help in your work during treatment.

Keep a record. Employers are usually very supportive of employees going through cancer treatment, but this isn’t true 100 percent of the time. It’s a good idea to keep track of discussions you have with your boss or human resources office. Hang on to copies of work reviews, emails or letters about your performance, or requests for accommodations. This documentation will be helpful if you need to take action to uphold your rights in the workplace.

If you’d like to learn more about your rights as an employee, you can contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Depending on where you live, you may also have state laws that apply to your situation.

If you’re a Dana-Farber patient, you can speak with one of our licensed social workers to help you think through your situation, learn more about your rights, and what options to consider as you move forward. Everyone is different and the process of responding to a cancer diagnosis is very personal, so meeting with a social worker who is familiar with your cancer may be a good starting point.

Nancy Borstelmann, LICSW, MPH, is a licensed clinical social worker who serves as Dana-Farber’s director of patient and family support and education.

11 Comments:

  1. My employer of 33 years is now trying to terminate me after taking 6 months of short term disablility leave and one month long term disability leave for brain surgery, lung surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. I’m trying to negotiate a return to work date soon regardless of my medical condition, luckily I am recovering well. I am terrified of losing my job and would never consider telling them I have cancer.

    • I have worked 14 years for my company and when I got Merkel cell cancer I was very lucky that it was found in time to have radiation only. I had MOHS and
      lymphnode tests but it had not spread thank goodness.
      I was afraid to tell my boss because I knew she would not be sympathetic at all. I only was out one day for the first two surgeries, and then 2 days for the MOHS as I was in a little pain. I was so tired from the radiation by the fourth week of eight that I worked about 10-12 hours a day because I was so tired. I decided to tell my boss, and the next day she asked me to write down everything I did all day and make a booklet of my job activities adding an extra hour of typing with a very sore arm and numbness in my fingers and lymphodema. I should have taken off the time the doctors suggested, and if ever again, I would do so.

      • Your middle manager boss was looking for a reason to fire you. She needs to be reminded that it is her and your company that need to obey federal law and meet your needs. Don’t put up with her bologna. Take the time you need to heal.

        Rich

  2. GV, we’re really sorry that you’re afraid of losing your job. You might want to talk to a social worker at your hospital, or someone else on your care team, about options that are available to you; it’s important that you get the time you need to rest and heal properly!

    Here’s information from the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission about cancer and employment:
    http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/cancer.html

    And our social worker Nancy Borstelmann gave a follow-up interview on this subject on WBUR’s CommonHealth blog:
    http://commonhealth.wbur.org/2012/01/fired-cancer/

    We hope this is helpful.

  3. Davacenia Adams,LPN

    Davacenia Adams In 2007, One week before I found the mass, My nurse manager sat me down for my yearly evaluation giving me the highest marks available.”I have to go for my one week vacation. When I get back, we will discuss sending you back to school for your RN! Your talent is wasted as an LPN.” while she was gone I was diagnosed with Stage III, Triple Negitive Breast Cancer” When she came back, I told her my dx, thinking that as a survivor she would understand. While in 3 year survival journey, I lost the job. It was my fav job of my 16year nursing career. And I am still an LPN

  4. My employer was initially very supportive but when my cancer treatment was over, he fired me.
    I had been working there for seven years and had received great performance reviews and bonuses. When my employer called me into his office to fire me he pulled out a calendar and pointed out when my work had suffered. He stated that since these times did not coincide with the dates of my surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, that he was justified in letting me go.
    He didn’t realize (and there’s no reason he would have) how much the experience of having cancer had affected me emotionally and mentally. I had seen no reason to stay home from work throughout my treatment except for the days I felt very sick and that decision ended up back-firing on me.
    When I was finished with my treatment, I wanted to return to work without delay to reassume my indentity as an upbeat business woman, not a bald cancer patient.
    My advice to those about to undergo cancer treatment would be to:
    - take a formal medical leave of absence. Don’t think you only need to stay home on the days you feel physically ill.
    – be aware that, very often, the most difficult times begin after treatment ends, just when you expect and are desperate to return to normalcy.

  5. Pingback: Insight » How to help your kids cope with your cancer

  6. I was recently diagnosed with early stage T-cell lymphoma. Right now Im just being monitored by my dr. I won’t know if I have to have any bone marrow aspirations or other testing until december unless I start getting bad before then. I am in alot of pain most of the time. Im debating whether to tell my employer at this time. Any suggestions or comments are welcome. I am very scared right now.

    • Hi Lorelei:

      I’m so sorry to hear of your diagnosis. I was diagnosed just over a year ago with follicular lymphoma and just began treatment. I completely understand that it’s a scary time! I started talking with a psychologist (and started blogging too) and that’s helped me deal with some of the mental struggles.
      As for your employer, earlier in the discussion, the blog editors posted this comment, which might be helpful:
      –michael

      “You might want to talk to a social worker at your hospital, or someone else on your care team, about options that are available to you; it’s important that you get the time you need to rest and heal properly!

      Here’s information from the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission about cancer and employment:
      http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/cancer.html

      And our social worker Nancy Borstelmann gave a follow-up interview on this subject on WBUR’s CommonHealth blog:
      http://commonhealth.wbur.org/2012/01/fired-cancer/

      We hope this is helpful.”

  7. Just diagnosed stage 4 cancer all in liver, lungs, etc…not much longer but I’m a new employee and job is 100% travel and the training is 1yr…I have a few mo left. I’m afraid to tell them for fear of being fired. zi need the money and life insurance for my family. No med treatment needed..not fighting…but may need pain meds later.

    Any thoughts?? Tell them or not? I’m going to new employee orientation next week, only been with company for 2mo. Most likely still on probation but the probation time period was never discussed….only that the training was 1 yr long.

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