How to Tell Coworkers About Your Cancer Diagnosis

When it comes to your medical history and health concerns, only you can decide what you’re comfortable sharing. At the time of your cancer diagnosis, you may have felt it was best to keep that information private rather than making it public knowledge among your coworkers. Now, as a cancer survivor ready to go back to work, you will once again need to determine how much personal information you want to share with others. 

While keeping your cancer diagnosis a secret from coworkers is an option, it really isn’t a practical one. After all, it’s likely you’ll look different when you return to work than you did when you left. Perhaps you’re sporting a short new do or wearing a wig. Maybe you’ve lost a noticeable amount of weight. You might even be experiencing some lingering side effects from cancer treatment. Without providing some sort of an explanation for these physical changes, your coworkers will probably be concerned about your overall health. Once you finally do tell them, don’t be surprised if they ask questions. It might seem overwhelming, but try to remember that it’s mostly because they care!   

Telling your coworkers about your cancer diagnosis is also a good way to clarify why you’ve been absent. Even if you didn’t have to miss that much work, it’s likely that your coworkers had to cover for you. Explaining to them that you missed work to undergo cancer treatments rather than missing work for vacation will allow them to feel much more gracious and understanding about temporarily taking on your workload. 

Again, you are in control when it comes to how much information you divulge and how you approach these conversations. Sharing only the highlights is totally acceptable if you aren’t comfortable with being completely transparent about your cancer journey. No matter what you choose to share, just remember that most of your coworkers, including your boss, will be most concerned about how you're doing physically and emotionally. At Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, we understand that opening up about your cancer journey can be hard. So, to help make it easier, we’ve compiled some tips to get you started.

Determine What Information You’re Comfortable Sharing 

Are you comfortable discussing your medical issues openly? Or, do you prefer providing the bare minimum only? 

  • Minimalist: Keep it short and sweet by simply saying you missed periods of work because you had cancer. 
  • Somewhat open: Maybe mention that you missed work to undergo a few different types of treatment for breast cancer. 
  • Pretty open: Talk about undergoing chemotherapy and mastectomy to treat your breast cancer. You might even provide more detailed information regarding the medicines you took, since there might be a coworker who can relate to a similar experience.

Regardless of how much you share about your situation, it’s important that you set boundaries if needed. It should be obvious to the person on the receiving end as to whether or not this topic can be discussed more at a later time.  

Anticipate Questions You Don’t Want to Answer

Naturally, you’ll have curious coworkers who would like more details— and while you may think that their questions seem too personal, try to maintain perspective. They probably do not mean to pry. Oftentimes, they just want to help or share stories about their loved one’s cancer experiences. It’s understandable, though, if hearing those stories makes you feel uncomfortable. If they do, it’s okay to explain that. Simply be honest by saying something like, “I know that many of us have had friends and family go through this. It's not easy. Hearing others' stories right now isn’t really something I can handle at the moment, but maybe I'll be ready to talk more about this later on." 

The good news is that most coworkers will respect your boundaries. However, if you encounter people who simply can’t keep their curiosity to themselves, be ready with a response that will stop the conversation. Let them know that you’d prefer to change the subject. Or, be more direct, letting them know that sharing the details of your cancer diagnosis isn’t something you’re comfortable with. 

Decide Who to Tell

If you prefer to only tell a small number of people at work about your cancer diagnosis, be sure to tell them to maintain your confidence. If you are being selective about who you tell, think about your reasons for sharing your story in the first place. Do you feel like you should explain why you were absent from work for such a long period of time? Are you experiencing long-term cancer treatment side effects that may affect your job performance? Would you like to put an end to rumors and speculation? Are you in need of emotional support? Do you simply want to be able to talk openly about your feelings? Answering these questions can be helpful when deciding which coworkers to tell. 

Additionally, how much you share with coworkers typically depends on how closely you interact with them. People in another department won’t need as much information as those who work closely with you. Sharing more with those you work most with will be especially helpful in times when you’ll be out for things like follow-up visits with your doctor. It’s likely that you’ll be more forthcoming with coworkers you’ve become friends with, which is understandable. For those you don't interact with very often, but who may notice your absence, a less-detailed explanation should suffice.  

Decide How to Tell

If you are only sharing information about your diagnosis with a few select coworkers, you might feel more comfortable telling them one on one over lunch or within the privacy of your office. If it’s a specific department or team you’re telling, gathering them together so you can tell them all at once might be the best way to go. If you’re telling your entire company, sending out an email may be the best option.

Remember, you are in control regarding how, when, where, why, and with whom you share your cancer experiences. There is no right or wrong way to go about it. There is only a way that is right for you. While you might not want to be the center of attention or treated differently, a little extra TLC during this adjustment period couldn’t hurt. Don’t be surprised to see patience and understanding from your coworkers (or even some extra help here and there). Take it all in stride and don’t be afraid to accept help if it’s something you could benefit from.