how should I talk about my cancer diagnosis at work?

A reader writes:

I am a young professional in my job of almost six years. I have good relationships with coworkers and management, and as we are a direct human services agency we are working in a culture that promotes healthy work/life balance, trauma informed care, etc.

I recently confirmed a cancer diagnosis. I’m doing well personally, and have a robust support network with family and friends, but I’m at a bit of a loss on how to interact professionally. I have let HR as well as my boss know I may have an upcoming medical leave to plan around, and so far everyone is incredibly supportive. I am the point person for benefits coordination so I am well informed on the process and what to expect. My question is less about the logistics and more about personal relationships.

I have several friends in the office who have been aware of my worries (it’s been a few months of testing), as we are close outside of work as well, and there are a couple of acquaintances I’ve worked with for years who I’ve felt comfortable telling that I have a “medical appointment” when I’m out for a day. I’m generally a friendly, happy go-lucky person and I’m worried as time goes on and treatment begins, I might get questions if I’m feeling okay, or if anything is wrong — and then dumping the big C on a well intentioned coworker who maybe didn’t mean to get that deep over the office kitchen toaster.

Is there any kind of etiquette around this? Do people send out staff emails discussing their personal health issues? Do you tell a few close people and let the news disseminate? Do people come up to you and ask how it’s going, or want progress updates? I imagine most of my coworkers will be supportive and wanting to help, but I have no idea what that even means yet. Still largely wrapping my head around what it all means to me.

I want to ask readers who have been through this to respond in the comments, but in general it’s up to you and what you’re comfortable with. People do this in different ways. Some people tell their whole team, some people tell only a few coworkers they’re closest to (and might tell them it’s fine to share the news with others, or might ask them not to), and some only tell HR and their boss.

There can be unintended consequences to sharing it with a lot of people, in the form of people checking in on how you’re doing more than you’d want, or giving you sympathetic looks and treating you as The Sick Person when you’re just trying to get answers for a project. But there can also be benefits to people knowing, like having them understand why you might suddenly be out of the office a lot for medical appointments or tired from treatment. It’s very much up to you though.

If you do decide to share it, you might find it helpful to think about how to manage people’s desire to know what’s going on after that. For example, if you want to ensure you’re not asked about it by five different people every day, you can ask a colleague you’re close to (or your manager) to spread the word that you prefer not to be asked about it at work. You can have one person you give updates to when there’s something you want to share, and ask that person to be the information hub so you don’t have to deal with that with everything else you’ve got going on. Or you might decide you want to set up a page on CaringBridge or a similar site so you’ve got one centralized place to share updates and organize whatever help you might need.

You also don’t need to figure this out right away. You can see how it goes and change things around as time goes on, based on what you find you want and need.

Readers who have been through this, what advice do you have?

{ 173 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie*

    OP, I hope everything goes well for you and I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this.

    I can share what my mom did after her cancer diagnosis at work. She did share with her co-workers (in her case there was no choice, she was a nurse and was being treated in the same hospital system in which she worked) but she asked them to let her bring it up.

    She was okay with them knowing, but didn’t want to be asked about unless she was up to talking about it and she certainly didn’t want patients to know. For the most part her co-workers respected this and it made it a lot easier.

  2. Archangelsgirl*

    Caring Bridge is a great communication tool, devised for this very thing. No, I don’t work for them, but have kept abreast of the progress of several acquaintances progress by using the platform.

    In your office, you could send a blanket email, and then thank people in advance for understanding that you need to keep your energy for treatment rather than responding to inquiries, and refer them to, or something similar, that you or a family member can update regularly. Might not be a bad idea to entrust a closer colleague or HR with being able to refer people to the Caring Bridge account as well.

    The nice thing about Caring Bridge is that you can use it to update EVERYONE in your life, if you choose. You’re probably not going to feel any more like updating Aunt Matilda than you are colleagues who are not close. This works for everybody. Also, you then don’t have to use company email for updates, other than the one … depending on your industry, you could give HR the heads up that you are sending the first email, or even have them send it on your behalf? Depends on your climate.

    Best of luck with your treatment, OP.

    1. PGrazz*

      +1 to this

      When my father was diagnosed with cancer, we did this. It alleviated the strain on the support network as well (rehashing the same thing over and over again is stressful, along with capturing everyone’s thoughts and trying to be diplomatic – plus people have a way fo calling or texting at fairly inopportune times!). Maybe not useful for work – up to you – but the concept of having a central info chain that you aren’t in charge of is very very helpful.

      Also – we used caringbridge to also have some “fun” – we collected recommendations for a lot of stuff which a) made people feel helpful and b) actually helped us. Restaurants in the area that deliver, movies for recovery, audio books/ podcasts for when you cant sleep, top “hospital fashion” tips, etc. We kept it light, but it helped give us things to discuss that were more fun.

    2. Heather L Angus*

      I second this. Caring Bridge was really good for me when I went through surgery and chemo. I kept it pretty light, since I didn’t want to weep online, but I told those I wanted to about “my” site on Caring Bridge, and then everyone from my daughter to church, community, and work friends that I’d told could check in at any time.

    3. The pest, Ramona*

      Caringbridge worked well for us when I was caregiver to my cancer patient husband. We kept our posts honest and positive regarding treatment. This allowed coworkers to know as little or as much as they were comfortable with, and we didn’t have to answer the same questions over & over. Even printed ‘business’ cards with the link so that it was easy to just hand that out and say something along the lines of ‘thanks for your concern, don’t really want to talk about it at work, you could read about it here’.

    4. Whitney*

      When I went through this, I was in my 20’s and had a pretty good prognosis, so I was in a good place personally (as it sounds like you are). I ended up just telling my boss (who was HR as well) and didn’t really say anything else to the others around me, but my boss ended up letting EVERYONE know right away by holding fundraisers and stuff for me (I was working part time while a student and had no insurance). I don’t have a great story of what I did, but what I would have preferred was to just tell those I wished to know as I felt like it, then maybe send out an email to the company for the time I was out for procedures etc when that time came. I think the most important thing is for you to make yourself comfortable and put yourself and your own feelings first, even if that’s just letting yourself have some normalcy without telling everyone about your situation.

      I hope everything goes well for you!!! You got this!

    5. Phoebe*

      Yes, we used Caring Bridge when my Mom had a stroke. We have family all over the country and they were very active in their church – so there were a lot of friends and family to keep updated. Caring Bridge was a great way to keep everyone informed without worrying that you’d forgotten someone. It was also a great way for friends to leave condolences and memories and then Dad could look at them when he was emotionally in the right frame of mind to read them and appreciate them.

    6. Quinalla*

      As someone who was invited to a caring bridge site for a friend of the family who was being treated for cancer, from my perspective it was very nice to be able to check in on it whenever I wanted without feeling like I was bugging the family. They could share what they wanted and everyone could follow as much as they were comfortable. The family that used it like it a lot as an easy way for them to update everyone at once and tell the story once instead of having to rehash over and over when they saw someone new.

      I’ve also seen folks share in a group email and let them know they would share updates, but that they prefer not to be asked questions and here is a link (or more than one) about cancer/whatever they can go to for more information.

      When I’ve had medical stuff, I’ve shared it with those who needed to know or would know anyway when they saw me (on crutches after breaking a hip, pregnant) and kept it to myself with folks who wouldn’t see me. To this day, folks I worked with during that time did not even know that I was working from home for 7-8 months after breaking my hip and while most know I was pregnant because of maternity leave after, they didn’t know while I was pregnant. I think those things have different weight than cancer, so not the same, but in case another perspective helps!

    7. anon for this*

      My husband and I looked into Caring Bridge when he got his diagnosis because so many people recommended it, but it seemed like it was not going to be useful for his relatives who are not really internet-savvy. Like, these folks are just not going to remember that they have to go to a website to get info about him, so then we’d still be dealing with sending out email updates. We decided to just go with the latter.

      1. jimmy john*

        this may not have been in effect when you used it, but the site now has an email alert function (by default, I think) for just that purpose

    8. anooooon*

      Can someone explain the appeal of such a website to me? I’m a private person and I’ve been in the workforce long enough to understand that companies can make up excuses to fire a sick person. You couldn’t pay me any amount of money to create a webpage to inform my coworkers about my chronic illness. On a personal level it would be miserable, and on a work level I would feel I was putting my job at risk. I’m confused about why someone would want to do this.

      1. HA2*

        The appeal is to be able to give updates to everyone who’s interested in them without having to do so individually. Obviously, if your main concern is that you don’t want people to know you’re ill, that website is kind of counterproductive! But it’s addressing the challenges of people who DO want to keep their friends/relatives/coworkers informed, but don’t want to answer an endless exhausting barrage of questions.

      2. Jane Gloriana Villanueva*

        I understand your concern, particularly the part where on a personal level it can be miserable to rehash. When a dear friend of mine gave birth to her second child, the baby needed near-immediate surgery and was in the hospital for many weeks. The baby’s recovery lasted many months. My friend’s sister and I took turns writing the CaringBridge update to keep the many concerned people informed, collect information about how others could contribute (meals, babysitting for the 1st child so mom and dad could both be at the hospital, etc.). Mom only had to update one person a week, and we would double-check as to whether she wanted all of the info included or what was for our ears only.

        It was out of character for the family to want a blog of their life, but these sorts of extraordinary circumstances warrant unusual responses, and honestly, it made me feel I was providing tangible help. This way I knew I was communicating things to family members and distant friends that I had never met, and I didn’t have to track down a lot of contact information or have repetitive difficult phone conversations (which I had done in the past when a friend lost her brother-in-law in Iraq).

  3. Srill standing*

    I am nearing the end of treatment for breast cancer and have worked through the whole thing. Because i was going to be out for surgery, then lose my hair on chemo, i first told my boss and hr. Then because i work for a team and others would be covering my work i let them know. I did tell 1 friend before the meeting. Then i just let it go from there. As people talked im sure it made its way around the office. Some people would occasionally ask me how i was doing, if i was done yet where i was with it, etc. Others never brought it up or talked to me about it. The questions i typocaaly received were not very probing and i would give fairly short but true answers. Today im not so good. Im very tired, things like that. As for logistics i was out a week and a half with surgery, almost a week with my first chemo because i had some issues with it and 3 days with the rest of the chemo. Radiation was every day i went at 8 was at work by 9 and skipped lunches fir a month. Good luck and post in the comments if you have more questions ill try and answer them

    1. A Poster Has No Name*

      I hope the remainder of your treatment goes smoothly and you start feeling better soon!

    2. edj3*

      Same, minus chemo (not all breast cancer responds to chemo).

      Because I manage a large team and would need to go to a metric ton of appointments, I told my direct manager first, and then my team. I did ask that they not make it a huge topic of discussion then (I just wasn’t up to lots of talk about this cancer). Everyone respected my boundaries.

  4. CastIrony*

    When a worker got cancer (and lived), word just spread around, and people at my job donated sick and vacation time for them to use for treatment.

    I don’t know how else to help; I wish you the best!

    1. JB*

      I love that people are kind enough to donate sick and vacation time. I hate that that’s a thing that happens instead of companies just accommodating leave as necessary in the first place.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Same. I first heard this was a “thing” years ago when my mom’s coworker had heart surgery and everyone was donating sick time to him.

        It actually backfired and he was pisssssssssssed by the donations. They didn’t ask him first and just did it, he wasn’t interested in being a “charity case” and also it screwed up his income for those months and his assistance programs [yes they paid so little, many had access to assistance programs] were affected. Sigh. Such a mess.

        1. bubba g*

          Yes, if sick time is being donated, the person being donated TO must be in the loop and ok with it. In some cases, it’s not needed – the same with unsolicited Gofundme donations. In many cases, people start them without even checking if the person needs/wants it.
          I’ve coordinated sick leave donation many times, in my work with my professional association. In my district (public schools), donation of sick leave can only be made when a person is facing a life-threatening illness, confirmed by a doctor. Donations can only be made for job-alikes, Certificated (teachers) to certificated, Education Support Professionals to Education Support Professionals, etc. It can be a godsend to a person to ensure that the full salary of the ill co-worker is received while the family focuses on treatment.
          The last one I helped coordinate was for a young teacher, mother of two, who had aggressive breast cancer. We had so many donations that we covered her for a year and a half, until her untimely death. It allowed her to spend time with her family and focus on getting well.
          But absolutely make sure that the person needs/wants it. She didn’t have much sick leave banked because she was new to the profession. I, on the other hand, have enough sick leave banked in my long career that I can donate and still miss almost a year of work without needing help. Same with GoFundme’s. It seems that anytime anyone is ill, etc. someone starts a GoFundme, whether or not someone needs it. It can be really embarrassing for some people.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            Argh, I don’t trust Gofundmes a lot of time for this exact reason, the fact that anyone can set one up in someone elses name. Lots of time they don’t know what’s going on and are against them them for various reasons.

            It’s great that the district allowed her to stay employed all that time as well. Lots of places will dump you after your 3 months of FMLA when you’re not longer protected. Enough leave banked or not.

            I was happy when my mother’s job was held for her after her 12 weeks were exhausted. To keep her on the schedule she did have to work at least 1 day a week but it’s shift work so it was fine enough for her at that stage. They’re really good at her requirements for post-treatement life as well, since there’s still doctors visits every few months for years afterwards.

      2. Kay*

        I am very lucky. After I told my boss I wanted to keep working through treatment, they basically said I can take whatever time off I need for cancer related absences from appointments to sick days from treatment and surgery recovery. And I still get all my work done. It baffles me that more companies don’t realize that if you make a place where people want to work and make accommodations for them when they need it, people will want to keep working for you and still get the tasks done. I wish more places knew that. And I know I am incredibly lucky that I work in the US and they are doing that for me.

      3. Jaydee*

        My previous employer had pretty generous vacation and sick leave as well as a sick leave “pool” to which employees could donate if they had more than a certain number of hours accrued and to which all accrued sick leave of departing employees was automatically donated. Then if an employee needed more leave than they had accrued, they could draw from the pool under certain circumstances. It avoided the issues that come from donations between individuals but still ensured that any employer who needed it had access to additional sick leave time.

  5. HowIMetYourFather*

    OP, I’m sorry that you are going through this, but it sounds like you have a strong support network and an organization that will be accommodating while you battle this.
    In regard to advantages of letting your co-workers in on your situation, when my mom went through her treatment for breast cancer, I recall one of her biggest concerns centered around the spread of germs and being immuno-compromised due to chemo. By letting some or all of your team know, it could be a beneficial factor in getting them to stay home when they’re ill as to not potentially spread the germs to you. Just something else to consider.
    And in general, if you’re someone who doesn’t mind talking about your situation to a certain extent, you could tell your team and let them disseminate the news through typical office chatter as Alison suggested. The people who are interested and want to share well wishes/concern will check in with you; the people who aren’t as keen on getting ALL the details will regulate their own involvement in those conversations. I’d take the cues from the people who engage with you and trust that everyone will understand if you share, overshare, or choose not to share on any given day.

    1. roger that*

      Oh, seconded! My coworkers were really great about staying home when they were sick once they knew I was immuno-compromised during chemo. Good idea.

    2. Goldfinch*

      This is where I was going to go…when my intensely private former boss finally got her SLE diagnosis, she shared with the department and explicitly requested that they be diligent about using sick leave, perform good illness hygiene, etc. Actually naming what was happening got people to take her request seriously, in a way that unfortunately would not have happened if she had just made vague comments about “leaving germs at home” and whatnot.

      This, of course, assumes that your work culture offers sufficient sick time and the means to use it.

    3. Alice's Tree*

      I chose to do this when I went on an immunosuppressant for a chronic condition. I felt a bit like a drama llama, announcing to all and sundry that I had a manageable condition that wouldn’t take me out of the office or affect them in any way. But I’m supposed to avoid sick people and I figured that would be easier if they knew. And that absolutely paid off. If people are even a little under the weather, they’ll keep their distance now. I highly recommend this for anyone who is immunosuppressed.

    4. Anon Y. Mouse*

      This is what I came here for as well. One of our colleagues told us about her diagnosis and that allowed us to lean heavily into working from home etc when sick and using leave to prevent her getting exposed.
      She also had to meet with people outside of our department and it helped us redistribute work so that we could have her avoid facetime that could put her at risk.

      So definitely important to let people know if only for that added protection!

  6. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    When my mom had to take time off with FLMA, first full scale leave and then intermediate leave after he was good enough to be left alone for a few hours, for my dad’s cancer, she told everyone in her department. Then they acted as a buffer for her, so she didn’t field all the questions and check-ins about how everything was going.

    They now have a coworker who has been recently diagnosed and is working through treatments as well. She alerted management and let them know it’s okay to share her diagnosis with others so she didn’t have to do it personally. They did it in a department meeting as a note about needing coverage for her from time to time given her treatment schedules.

    It’s a very personal decision and can be handled in a variety of ways. If you’re close to people and tell even a couple outside of the management circle, you can pretty much assume it will “leak” out, even if they try hard to keep your privacy in mind.

    It’s hard to know your audience here and how they’ll react if you haven’t had an illness of this magnitude in the company before.

    Sending you good energy and hope that your team rallies around you in just the way that makes things comfortable for you in this time of crisis. Most teams care about each other on this very human level and given your close knit ways, I hope that whatever you choose to do, they respect you and don’t add any stress to your already packed schedule you’ve got going on right now.

  7. Don't Ask Me About My Health, Please*

    I am currently undergoing chemo for my own diagnosis. I work at a large medical university in an internally highly visible position. I was very nervous about sharing my diagnosis, because the pattern I’ve seen again is that that once a diagnosis is out there, everyone wants to talk about it in detail- your treatment plan, other options, prognosis, etc. This is all out of a genuine desire to help, but just thinking about it exhausted me.

    The plan I came up with was to tell as few people as possible before I left- HR, my supervisor and team, and two or three folks outside of the department that I regularly collaborate with. I asked everyone to not tell anyone until after I went out on my six weeks surgery leave. Once I was out, my supervisor and team were asked to tell anyone who asked about my absence that I was out for cancer surgery, always including the fact that I didn’t want to go into details about the diagnosis. Everyone was asked to limit their comments on my return to welcome backs and general well wishes. They did a terrific job spreading the news for me. I’ve been back to work for three weeks now and everyone has respected this. By limiting people to the general well wishes, I’ve been able to avoid getting into the nitty gritty with everyone- it’s easy to respond to “I hope everything is going well for you” with a “Things are under control, thanks.”

    In the end, I think it depends on your environment and your personal level of comfort with folks knowing. In my case, being back at work is a welcome distraction from chemo and I’m relieved people aren’t bringing it up all the time.

    I hope this helps! Prayers and good wishes for your successful treatment.

    1. edj3*

      ” I was very nervous about sharing my diagnosis, because the pattern I’ve seen again is that that once a diagnosis is out there, everyone wants to talk about it in detail- your treatment plan, other options, prognosis, etc. This is all out of a genuine desire to help, but just thinking about it exhausted me.”

      Same! Telling people and then responding to their very well intentioned best wishes is exhausting!

  8. Voc Ed Teacher*

    My dad told his boss and his team that he worked with so they knew what he was going through and why he would be off on intermittent FMLA. His work was actually really supportive and no one really brought it up unless he said something first–but to each their own.

  9. roger that*

    Hi – I’m sorry about your diagnosis. I am in my early 30s and have had two cancer diagnoses in the last four years (same workplace both times). Here’s what worked for me, with the caveat that my cancer friends have chosen some different ways that worked for them, too:

    – Told the people I was close with in person, and kept them updated when I felt like talking about it/when there was major news.
    – Told the people I work with often but am not close with via email as a group once I had more or less settled on a treatment plan. This worked well because they knew who else knew, and because it let me control the narrative. I told them what kind of cancer I had (very optional), with the outlines of my treatment plan (examples: I am scheduled for surgery on DATE and expect to be out for X weeks. [Name of coworker] will be covering while I am out, so please direct questions to her. I will have chemo starting X date and the appointments are every X weeks. I don’t know yet how much time off I’ll need for chemo until I figure out how it feels, but I will keep my Outlook calendar updated and [same coworker] will be available for any questions on days I am out.)
    – In that email, I wrote that “I am trying to keep work feeling as normal as possible, and I really appreciate your help in continuing to do that and in always making [our organization] an awesome place to work with great colleagues.” That worked out really effectively at letting people know but avoiding a million questions about how I was doing all the time. Most wrote back to my email with kind things, but did not press me with questions in the hallways or anything.
    – Got good at deflecting “how ARE you??” questions with “I’m ok. How is that project going?/How was your weekend?/Have you talked to Jane yet about X topic?” Those sorts of replies made it easier to avoid awkward conversations I didn’t feel like having.

    The one thing I would do differently is make sure that someone told the head of our office. He inadvertently made awkward comments when I started covering my head when my hair fell out, and it made me realize no one had told him I was sick. Poor guy probably felt very awkward after!

    Best of luck to you during treatment. Personally, work was a safe haven for me during treatment and was the one thing that kept being normal, which really helped me out.

  10. Anise*

    I have a serious chronic illness, and what’s worked best for me for my own personal reasons is not to talk about it in my professional life. People are aware it exists, but I don’t go into the details, or even what it is.

    What’s worked well for me if people well-intentionedly pry too much is to tell them that the illness stuff has taken over my life, and right now I just want to think about anything else, so (question about their life). Everyone’s been gracious, and I think the redirect makes people feel like they’re still doing something helpful for me.

    Or, if they want something to do to help, I tell them that escapism is great and I’ll never say no to cat videos!

  11. AnotherAlison*

    I have a project team member with a very poor prognosis. His functional management knows the details. He told me that he would have time out on “X” days for treatments, and as time has gone on, he’s had days when he’s had to be out last-minute due to post-treatment symptoms, and I’ve never asked for more information. However, while he didn’t share directly, it has been really important that I understood the severity of his situation. It has helped me understand his performance and not say something inappropriate. (Talking to someone about excessive unscheduled afternoons OOO would sound pretty stupid when they have his dx.) I wouldn’t want to know your health details, but I would recommend full transparency on the work impacts to those affected.

  12. Lee*

    I’m sorry you’re going through this. I have been dealing with stage 4 colon cancer for over 8 years and have been working full-time throughout (4 1/2 years at my current company). I am very open about my experience and though I hate when I’m told I don’t “look sick” it is true.
    You will really have to gauge the people you work with to determine how much to share; just know there are no secrets.
    I host the WE Have Cancer podcast and am happy to help if you’d like to connect with me there.

  13. Cancer but not the Sign*

    OP, I’m so, so sorry you’re going through this. No one should have to.

    I’ll share my experience, in case it’s helpful (I’m recently diagnosed, have completed radiation, and am just about to go into surgery, which will be followed by chemo.) When I was first diagnosed, I assumed things were going to move very quickly and that I’d be out for surgery really quickly. So I immediately told my managers and HR, but was vague with everyone else (“medical issue”) when explaining my absence for endless tests and appointments. Then, about a week before surgery, I sent an email to my own office. This worked reasonably well – I didn’t have people asking me nonstop questions for the first few weeks (when I was so distraught I could barely talk about it). After I sent the email, I got a few very nice emails back, and some people who I don’t know well ignored it. That’s fine with me! The only downside is one of my managers has a big mouth and actually told some people! So that whole period before I told coworkers, I worried that everyone knew and was avoiding me. I don’t think keeping it quiet would be a problem most managers though.

    For whatever you do say to coworkers, I would recommend keeping it short but answering a few common questions so they don’t ask. Like “I have stage 2 breast cancer. It hasn’t spread, and I’m expecting to have about 6 months of chemo. My outlook is pretty good.” You don’t *have* to share this level of detail, I just found it helpful to fend off questions. And if you have any expectations about how you want people to interact with you, definitely share them! For example, if you’d rather other people let you bring it up (I love that suggestion up thread!) or if you want to push updates through caring bridge or a blog.

    And, you didn’t ask this, but since I think most of us here are pretty career focused, I just wanna say – it’s totally normal and ok to take time off to focus on treatment. People kept telling me that work would keep my mind off cancer, but I have not found that to be the case! I’ve only done radiation so far, but I’ve found it incredibly difficult to juggle just regular appointments even, so I’m planning to be out for surgery recovery and all of chemo. If you feel like time off would help, ask for it.

    Good luck, and I wish I could give you a hug. The period after diagnosis is just awful and sad and lonely, I wish you all the best.

    1. Cancer but not the Sign*

      Oh one more thing. You know yourself, but telling people in person has been incredibly difficult for me. I still cry every time, and it makes people freak out, and then i end up comforting them. So email or having a designated person spread the news can help with that.

      1. Kay*

        I cry every time too. I feel like I am doing well otherwise, I have already gone through a mastectomy, lymph node biopsy, port surgery and halfway through chemo just fine, good spirits, healthy outlook, but if someone asks me about it, I just choke up.

    2. rageismycaffeine*

      I’ve been there with the sad and lonely and the awfulness. And you should be prepared for how weird it’s going to feel immediately after your treatment is over – that’s when it’s REALLY good to have a support network!

      If you ever want a breast cancer buddy, feel free to email me at this username at gmail dot com. And if you’re under 45, I’ve also found the Living Beyond Breast Cancer Young Women’s Initiative (or just LBBC if you’re over 45!) and the Young Survivor’s Coalition to be great resources.

      1. rageismycaffeine*

        UGH please ignore the latter part of this. I don’t know how I read “breast cancer” when you didn’t say it. Still! Please reach out if you want a cancer buddy!

        1. Kay*

          My comment below it talked about a mastectomy, so I may have thrown you off. It’s useful for me though! (31, IDC)

  14. Kay*

    Hi OP, first off, I’m so sorry you’re going through this, but glad you have a good support system, I hope your treatment goes well.

    I am currently going through this. I’m young and currently going through breast cancer treatment. For me, I kept it a secret until I couldn’t. I had to have a mastectomy and was out of the office for several weeks, and now going through chemo it became impossible to hide. I’m working from home to avoid infection risk. If you’re able to do that, and planning to work through treatment instead of taking health leave, I highly recommend it. It’s not worth getting sick and delaying your treatment and you will be at high risk of infection if you go through chemo.

    I first told my manager. I asked that he share the news with my team, the five people I work with directly. If you do plan to share, and you don’t have to, I recommend making someone your point person to be the one who shares what you feel comfortable with sharing, and being the person people question so you don’t have to keep having the same emotional conversations over and over again.

    Now that I am working from home, lost my hair and had major surgery, the rest of my office knows because it became more stressful to keep it secret. I’ve been very lucky that my coworkers have respected my privacy and do not pry or make things awkward. I really hope you have the same luck. I’m rooting for you, OP. We can fight this thing.

    1. rageismycaffeine*

      Kay – same thing I’ve said to others here – please feel free to reach out at this username at gmail dot com if you want a breast cancer buddy! It can be so helpful to talk to other people who have been through it. Consider looking in to the Living Beyond Breast Cancer Young Women’s Initiative and/or the Young Survivor Coalition.

      Love and light to you. <3

  15. MillersSpring*

    OP, I’m so sorry for your diagnosis. It’s no fun to go through breast cancer treatment, but it’s do-able. I went through surgery to place my port, eight rounds of chemo, lumpectomy and port removal, then 33 rounds of radiation. With meds, friends and a good wig, it was awful but manageable.

    At work, I told my boss first, he told his boss, and I told the two people who reported to me.

    Then I sent a blanket email to the grand-boss’ large department (around 100 people across the country) to share my news. I also needed their understanding and patience, because my team provides services to them.

    I received a lot of replies expressing support and well wishes. It was a good way to get the basic details out to a lot of people.

    I didn’t use CaringBridge, but relied on Facebook and a few colleagues to share occasional updates. I appreciated every word of support.

  16. Thomas*

    It may depend somewhat on your exact diagnosis, treatment plan, and prognosis. My own experience was several years ago, while working for a 25-staff-person non-profit org where we were all pretty friendly and close. Importantly, at the time I got my diagnosis, our much beloved executive director had been working a modified, flexible schedule for a few months because of her own cancer treatment. I believe that she had shared that information staff-wide at a meeting, but some folks knew before, if her absences had a direct impact on their work. My own diagnosis was for a cancer which is very treatable and has a great prognosis, but required a week of inpatient chemotherapy (which ended up being 2 weeks in hospital + a few days at-home recovery when I got an infection because all my white blood cells were dead). Anyway, I went the all-staff email route, in consultation with my boss. I also made a one-on-one call to the exec director beforehand so that she wouldn’t find out by email. Folks were incredibly supportive. My treatment was all at once and then I was done (though with the expectation that I’ll have to do it again in 8-10 years, and periodically for the rest of my life). So the questions weren’t too many.

    1. OtterB*

      My experience was similar to this, without the executive director complication. Not-for-profit, fewer than 20 staff, all pretty friendly, well within our organizational culture to (a) do what you needed for your health, and (b) work from home as needed. I spoke to my boss, the executive director, first, and at his suggestion sent an all-staff email. If I hadn’t wanted to do that, I’m sure he would have spread the word for me. I had early-stage endometrial cancer and had a hysterectomy but didn’t need follow up radiation or chemo, so it wasn’t as ongoing a process as many. Once I felt well enough to be bored, I worked from home a few hours a day, which let me keep up and also let me nap as needed. The following year had a couple completely unrelated health challenges for me and one for my husband, so I was bouncing in and out a fair amount. I’d give short updates via email or at a staff meeting, and there were a few concerned questions but no nosy ones.

      I do think age makes a difference. OP says they are a young professional. I was 60 +/- a year when this was going on and, for better or worse, diagnoses are more common as you get older.

  17. JJ*

    Hang in there!!

    Two things that surprised me were that my boss immediately went and told EVERYONE higher than him (and at the same level) and many of those people’s first question was “what kind of cancer?” I knew they meant well, but since in my case it was cervical it was very uncomfortable. So I just said what it was and let them deal with the awkwardness. At and below my own level, I only told my closest coworker and they were very supportive and respectful.

    1. Kay*

      I feel this! I have breast cancer and all of a sudden people feel like it’s okay to talk about my breasts at the office. Everyone’s been really nice, but I was not expecting to have to answer why I still had breasts after they knew I was out of the office for a mastectomy (they don’t need to know about my reconstruction, you know?).

    2. Cancer but not the Sign*

      I chose to share my kind of cancer (colon), because it’s on the rise in young people, and increased awareness of symptoms can be hugely helpful in diagnosis. I tell anyone who will listen all about it. (Don’t ignore blood in your poop!) But it does make it uncomfortable, because baaaaasically all my symptoms are poop related.

      1. Erin F*

        Yes don’t ignore poop symptoms! My husband is also young and diagnosed with colon cancer. Since his diagnosis I’ve talked about poop and butts more than I ever thought possible but now I feel a responsibility to talk more openly about this stuff because most young people think certain cancers are “old person” diseases.

    3. anon for this*

      My husband has cancer and I’m always so taken aback when I tell someone “my husband has cancer” and they immediately say “oh, what kind?” like we got a new dog or something. It seems incredibly rude to me! Fortunately it doesn’t happen that often.

      1. ThatGirl*

        I think part of it is wanting to sympathize (oh, my dad had prostate cancer, he’s doing great; or oh, pancreatic cancer is really awful, I’m so sorry) and part of it is probably a subconscious desire to know if he “brought it on himself” (e.g. if it’s lung cancer people tend to assume/blame smoking). We also tend to assign “good” vs “bad” cancers (thyroid cancer or skin cancer have high survival rates, for instance). And people are nosy.

        But I can totally understand not wanting to answer, and I think depending on how well you know the person you can say “I’m sorry, that’s private” or something similar.

  18. somebody blonde*

    Before you tell anyone, think specifically about what interactions you do not want to have. For example, there may be someone in your office who will become obsessed with your illness and you may not want to be smothered. Or you may have a very close client relationship where they’ll be confused if someone else is covering for you a lot while you receive treatment. Overall, how and to whom you disclose relies on these factors rather than others.

    My husband basically told the people in the latter category ( basically, the people who would definitely notice something was going on) and didn’t tell people outside that category. He worked the whole time except for his surgery, and his only really visible sign was wright loss, so it was easy for him to keep it low-key. You may not be so lucky, so you should prepare for that.

  19. TV Researcher*

    I’m so sorry you’re going through this. It sucks, but it sounds like your office is being helpful which is a godsend.

    I was diagnosed with cancer in April 2017, and for me things happened quickly. I was diagnosed when I was going in for another medical thing, but within three weeks, I had major surgery scheduled that took me off work on FMLA for almost six weeks. Once I recovered from the surgery, I went straight into chemo/radiation and once I lost my hair, it was pretty obvious what happened. So, outside of my boss and a few friends at the office, I didn’t have to tell anyone. They did that. And others I was friends with on social media heard through Facebook. Also, weirdly, I was the fourth person on my floor to have a cancer diagnosis within a two year period, so precedence had been set.

    I had a recurrence at the 18 month mark, so I’m back in treatment (immunotherapy this time), which doesn’t have as many obvious side effects, which is good.

    I didn’t mind telling people I had cancer, but outside a very small circle at work, I didn’t tell folks what type I had, as it wasn’t their business.

    If you have any questions, feel free to reach out.

  20. Clawfoot*

    I found a lump last October, had it diagnosed as cancer in November, and had a mastectomy in mid-December, was back at work in mid-January. It was… a whirlwind. (I am completely fine now; no chemo or radiation necessary, we found it very early.)

    How I dealt with it was that I told my manager and HR, and I let my manager know explicitly that I had no problem with her telling people why I was away, so word spread in my absence quite organically.

    My surgery was scheduled for less than three weeks after I received my diagnosis, so I was still wrapping my head around everything as I was arranging for time off. I honestly would have told more people in person had I been thinking straight, but I’m not upset at how things played out.

    I think the key is to be very explicit about what you want and what you don’t want, and it’s okay to not know what that is right away.

  21. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    I’ve been on the other side of this.

    I have a friend/coworker that received a cancer diagnosis. It’s been a battle that’s lasted years. She’s very private so only told me and another coworker the in-depth details. Our boss knew the basics. When she had surgery/treatments/etc, I was the one who got the all-clear from her husband. In those instances, I knew what I could share with who (“the surgeons think they got all but they won’t know about the margins until x date”/”the surgery went well”/etc.).

    When people asked how they could help or be supportive, I was happy to offer up suggestions that I knew would be helpful, appreciated, and not overstepping work boundaries. (Just because I was comfortable walking their dogs for them didn’t mean Sue from accounting would be.)

  22. Blunt Bunny*

    Hi OP sorry to hear about your diagnosis. My coworker has been diagnosed with breast cancer in the last few months. She told our Team manager first then put a meeting in to tell us in person and slowly told people in the office. She acted positively and with optimism so that is how we reacted, she gets treatments, blood test and scans regularly. She gives updates regularly so we don’t often have to ask what is happening. We only usually ask about it when she has gone for a scan or if she bring it up. The hospital she goes to is in a nice area so she often goes for a nice lunch after. Her updates are matter of fact and even when it is bad news or vents (it spread or struggling to get a cost effective travel insurance) she has put her own sarcastic spin on it that lets people know she doesn’t want doom and gloom or to bring her down. If you update a few people your work closely with they can field a lot of questions from people. Example how’s Sue? She’s waiting to hear about her scan but she positive.

  23. OperaArt*

    When diagnosed with breast cancer, I told my two supervisors and the team. I let them spread the news. I appreciated not having to explain why I was out post-lumpectomy, or why I was exhausted during radiation treatment. People were interested enough without being pushy.

    Another team member was being treated for breast cancer at the same time. Maybe having two of us dealing with it at the same time normalized the situation for everyone else. I don’t know.

  24. Michael*

    When I was diagnosed last year, I told my boss, hr, and a few close work friends immediately and then told my directs when I had a path forward & dates. The initial conversation was very much, “Hi, I’m going to be out in a few months for X because of Y and then weill be back about 6 weeks later.” Of course, then my surgeon called and got me in the next week (because of a cancelation, not due to diagnosis, thankfully) so had to have another quick meeting and let them know the timeline moved up.

    I was very lucky in that I had a lot of support at work and during chemo basically worked m-f of one week, then m & f of the next when I was actually getting chemo for 6 rounds of treatment. Somthing that helped with being in & out was making sure the people who would be covering for me during the initial 6 weeks out of office were well prepared and ready before leaving. Then, I left it to them. Even when tempted I made sure to ignore all things work so I could focus on healing.

    I hope everything goes well for you and you figure out what feels right in your situation for communicating.

  25. Supervisor of similar situation*

    I supervise someone who is being treated for cancer now. This employee has been extremely secretive about their diagnosis and only their immediate boss and grandboss are aware. (Not even HR is aware–just that they have a medically-excused absence.) As the supervisor, to be honest, it’s been a nuisance and a staffing issue to be this secretive. This employee comes in to work for a few days, then is out for long stretches while undergoing treatment, and I can’t explain to anyone why. Coworkers pick up the slack without knowing why they are out for so long. I cannot ask HR for temp support because I cannot explain why the employee is out or for how long they will be out for. The employee refused to return to work while their hair was growing back in. In the past year, they’ve been out 70% of the time. It would have been so much easier if this employee had not been so prideful and secretive and had just been honest. Their coworkers would probably have been more understanding, I would not have had to have been so secretive, the employee could have returned to work before all their hair returned, and I could have asked HR for a temp while they were out. I understand people value privacy, but everyone in the office knows something is wrong with this employee–they just don’t know exactly what is wrong.

    1. Close Bracket*

      That’s an interesting take on the situation. I wonder if reframing it would make it easier on you. There are any number of reasons beyond “being prideful” to keep a cancer diagnosis private. I hope you will read some of the answers here, like the one below yours, to gain insight into what could be going through your direct report’s mind. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter *why* your direct report wants to keep their medical issues private, and “Just be honest and less prideful and secretive!” will not solve the staffing issue. The employee has a medically-excused absence, and you have to work around it regardless of what the medical excuse is. Hair or no hair is not the issue. Sometimes, people have to be out for long stretches — arrange coverage the way you would treat any medically-excused, extended absence, which should not include believing that the employee should just come back to work sooner to save you so much hassle!

    2. NEDS (no evidence of disease)*

      It might be easier on you if the employee had told people but may not be easier on them. Seriously, I don’t think they are being “prideful”. Cancer strips you of pride, peace of mind, good health, etc. etc. I didn’t want to tell anyone about my cancer diagnosis because I did not want to be treated differently and its NOT THEIR BUSINESS! It’s not about my honesty at all. I truly hope that you never get cancer because no one deserves it but you will be in a better place than me because you will have already figured out how to respond to every situation. I was blindsided and could just take one day at a time.

    3. Midwesterner*

      70% of the time? Hair growing back in, in and of itself, after chemo is completed, is not something that qualifies for FMLA. From the limited details you shared, it seems like a bizarre situation, but given how secretive the person is, maybe even you do not know the whole story.

    4. gyrfalcon*

      I think people can be terribly nosy about other people’s medical conditions. If it’s good enough for HR to simply know “employee has a serious medical condition”, it’s good enough for that to be all the rest of the employees know.

      Practice saying “employee has a serious medical condition that requires they have this time off,” and when people want to know what kind of medical condition, practice saying “a serious medical condition.”

      People who are private about their medical information deserve to have their wishes respected.

    5. TechWorker*

      Why the hell would HR need to know exactly what the illness was before they can approve a temp? I find it very difficult to believe there’s any legal or ethical reason you can’t give HR enough info that they will agree the need for a temp, without going into specifics.

    6. MsSolo*

      Did you have a good relationship with the employee before their diagnosis? Your framing of their desire for privacy as prideful and secretive makes me think you’re influenced by your existing opinion of their personality. If you were already at BEC with the person, it makes sense you’re viewing their behaviour through the same lens; seeing patterns in their behaviour (cancer doesn’t make people into saints – a proud knowledge hoarder isn’t going to suddenly change just because they’ve got more appointments to attend!). However, the issues around temps and so on – as Techworker says, surely they don’t need to know what the medical issue is to approve a temp – makes me wonder if your in an already toxic workplace, which would explain why your employee is being very cagey about their diagnosis. Coping behaviours for toxic workplaces manifest in different ways for different people, and when you’re dealing with a diagnosis you really don’t want to also juggle all that toxicity as well.

  26. Petty Chief*

    I think Alison is spot on with her advice.
    As the coworker of someone who is currently undergoing cancer treatments, I’ve let my coworker lead the conversations. I will ask how she is doing, like I would any other coworker, and if she wants to go into details, I’m open to that. I also make sure that I’m no too invasive with questioning or emotional in my responses (e.g, “That sounds terrible!!!” or “How many times have you thrown up today?”) It took some practice though (especially with the non-emotional part), but because she has been business-as-usual with her attitude, I’ve been business-as-usual with mine.

  27. DAMitsDevon*

    I’m not dealing with cancer, but this past year (and in the next few months), I’ve had a lot more problems than usual related to the heart defect I was born with. I was hospitalized for an infection on my heart valve earlier this year, and while I was dealing with, I pretty much just only had enough energy to give updates to my boss (so he would know I was still alive, but unable to come into work) and then have him tell everyone else what was going on. Now, because of that infection, I’ll need to get open heart surgery to repair the defect to decrease the chances of the infection reoccurring, and have my surgery scheduled for January so I can still celebrate the holidays. So far, I’ve only told my boss, so that he’ll be aware that I’ll need to be out on medical leave for at least a week, and will need to work from home for a few weeks to a month, and I’ve told a few coworkers who I’m friends with. I may let more people know as the date gets closer though, and at some point, will put the medical leave on my work calendar.

  28. Lora*

    Had cancer twice (different kinds, I just have terrible genetics) and the first time I was very open about surgery, radiation, etc because what the heck, it’s not like it’s shameful, right? It happens, life isn’t always fair, I’ll soldier through it because what choice do I have.

    Sweet fancy Jesus. The second diagnosis I told almost nobody. Very close friends and HR and the company nurse who needed to know only. That went much better.

    First time around there was no END of variations on “think happy thoughts!” “Eat the magic herbs/sniff the essential oils/chew this root,” “this is God’s punishment” or some variation thereof. If I politely said, thanks but I’m all set, I have a good medical team, I got a huffy “well I guess you just don’t WANT to get better!” OP, this was when I learned what “I’ll pray for you then!” REALLY means.

    Then there were the people who basically have a lot of emotions AT you, who take the information as their cue to start sobbing about their granny died of cancer and but you’re so young! Waaaahhh the tragedy! And you get to sit there awkwardly like, um, I am the person actually sick, sooooo uhhh…

    Then there are the Overly Enthusiastic, who want to all shave their heads with you! And have a fundraiser, even if your insurance is covering everything. And have tee shirts and a Walk for the Cure in your honor and Silly Hat Day and all kinda things that…well, I assume that some people enjoy being the center of attention but I am not one of them. It came across as weirdly prurient and creepy to me. I wanted work to be a little oasis of Not Cancer, with maybe mid day naps. Instead it felt like being on Cancer TV all the time.

    Good luck with however you decide to approach it, but my experience is that the fewer people you tell, the better.

    1. Sara without an H*

      Yikes, Lora, I think you deserve a medal for not strangling some of these people in their tracks. The only response I could think of that would be remotely appropriate would be the weaponized version of “bless your heart.”

    2. rageismycaffeine*

      G a g. I am cringing sympathetically with you. “Being on Cancer TV” is too accurate.

    3. Ciela*

      oh my yes! When I was diagnosed in 2006 with ocular melanoma on my retina (basically one of the rarest things that can go wrong with your eye) I told everyone at an all staff meeting. I mean there were 9 of us at work, so couldn’t really leave anyone out.

      And then 2 days after my diagnosis, I find out that Bubble, the receptionist was giving out very garbled / inaccurate info to our customers and vendors. One customer, with whom I had NOT shared any medical info, e-mailed me “I’m glad your eye is okay”. I admit, I was a giant bundle of stress and sent a slightly snippy, but still factual, e-mail, that I had a malignant tumor in my eye, and would need radiation treatment within the next month. I think they felt bad, because I got a gift basket the next afternoon.

      But I wish I could have put that genie back in the bottle. For months every time I talked to anyone, they asked how I was / treatments / etc.
      Thankfully now I only get asked 2-3 times a year, and mostly from my mom.

    4. Nopenopenope*

      God, yeah. And everyone wants to tell their own horror story too, either of their own experience or someone they know. Really gory, awful stuff that you absolutely don’t want to hear. Original LW: please take into account that if the whole office knows, people probably WILL try to tell you horror stories. Even if you try to shut it down (“I don’t want to hear that, let’s talk about Subject Change”) they may keep enthusiastically sharing these types of stories to each other when you are around. This is especially true if your diagnosis is among the more commonly-occurring ones. If you decide to tell a lot of people, you will want to prepare in advance for how to handle these interactions, excuse yourself, and calm yourself down.

      Even if you only tell a few people, you may have to deal with supervisors trying to tell you horrible stuff about their Second Cousin’s Treatment Gone Terribly Wrong. Practice shutting it down, with a friend or in a mirror.

  29. Mobuy*

    I think a lot of this depends on your own comfort level and how much you want to talk about it, but I just told people that I worked with that I had cancer. I was open about it, joked about my wig, lamented the loss of my eyebrows. People would ask, I’d answer, we’d move on with our day. It’s a big part of your life to go through cancer treatment, and it makes sense to mention it, just like any other big life thing.

    I did my best not to let it interfere with work, but being open about it helped me a lot. I also became the person that others came to when they were diagnosed in later years. That was a good thing for me as well, because I could be a support system (and a model — look, I survived!) for others.

  30. Sara without an H*

    Hi, OP — I’m sorry you’re going through this, but it sounds as though your co-workers will do the right thing, if given the right cues.

    After my breast cancer diagnosis, I told the following people, in this order: 1) HR director; 2) boss; 3) my team. My team had already figured out that something was up, based on the number of medical appointments I’d had recently, so they were kind of relieved to be told something specific. I emphasized that my prognosis was good (it was), and that if anybody else brought it up, they should feel free to contradict any rumors that I was at death’s door.

    I work in higher education, so I picked out a couple of friendly faculty members to brief, then watched the news work it’s way around campus, an interesting process in itself.

    You didn’t ask for advice, but I’m going to give you some anyway:
    1. Pace yourself. You may find you feel pretty good at certain times of day, less so at others. Try to tackle work that actually needs brainpower at the times you feel good, and have some low-priority stuff you can work on when your energy fades. If your job is such that working from home is possible, try to negotiate that with your managers. (My job can’t be done that way, but there were times that I really wished it could.)
    2. Have a short update speech ready to go when kindly people ask how you feel: “Not too bad, thanks, I just don’t have a lot of energy right now.” Or something to that effect. You’re right in thinking that they may not be up for a deep conversation, but people will ask (especially if your treatment includes chemotherapy), and you’ll feel better if you have an answer prepped that’s professional and protects your own boundaries.

    Good luck, and I hope your treatment goes smoothly and successfully!

  31. Elizabeth Christophy*

    I’ve been through cancer twice. Both times I had to have chemo and I lost all my hair. To me, that was the worst part, because it made it obvious what I was going through. When it comes to informing people, the hair loss really does make it obvious even to people you didn’t tell so that’s something to think about.

    I dealt with it by being open and matter-of-fact. If people asked, I told them what was going on. I’m a teacher, so I wanted to be very upfront and not scare my students as I walked around with my hat on. In general, I think people take their cues from you. If you just go along as much as possible with business as usual, they will too.

  32. A Poster Has No Name*

    Reading along with interest, as I’m on the side of the coworkers in this scenario. I’m pretty sure one of my coworkers is undergoing cancer treatment (wigs, headscarves, clearly losing her hair), but she’s not a close coworker so I’m not sure whether I should bring it up or ask someone else or just…ignore it? The latter seems cold, somehow, as I like her and hope she’s doing well, but I also do not want to intrude on her privacy in any way. She seems to be doing well when I see her at work, so I’ve been treating her as I always have, but wondering if there’s something more I can or should be doing.

    We tend to work together in fits and starts, so weeks or months can go by without us interacting in a meaningful context, so I’m not sure if she was out for awhile for treatment or not.

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      If you would admire a nice top or her shoes, feel free to admire a headscarf (and have the next topic ready to go with no gap so she doesn’t feel obliged to explain but still can if she wants).

  33. Employee*

    A previous boss, Beth, several years ago, went through chemo for cancer. She decided not to tell anyone (including her boss) though it was clear to people who knew her best that something was going on and could easily guess what it was. She was afraid people would treat her differently. Since she was withholding any info about her illness other coworkers didn’t have the needed info on why her mood/attitude was changing so often, why she wasn’t remembering previous meetings, etc. It was not a good situation for anyone involved.

    I do understand why Beth wanted privacy and those that knew kept it (she didn’t know that any of us knew), but in this specific example it did irreparable harm to her reputation. She left shortly after. Take from that what you will.

    Good luck in your upcoming treatment – I wish you the best.

  34. Phil*

    I didn’t have cancer but spent many months in the hospital after an infection left me paralyzed from the neck down. I’m pretty OK now-walking around, thanks-but I can tell you that I got very tired of people asking me how I was. I would have liked at least one place where I didn’t have to answer that question all the time.

  35. rageismycaffeine*

    First of all – welcome to the crappiest club with the coolest people in it.

    When I was diagnosed with breast cancer three and a half years ago, my strategy was to make it known as much as possible. Two reasons for this:
    1) I was 36. I had a friend who was diagnosed at 34, and her diagnosis made me keenly aware of the fact that breast cancer is not an old ladies’ disease (counter to what you see in a lot of breast cancer awareness campaigns). It was because of her that I started doing monthly self-checks religiously, and because of that that I found my lump and was able to be treated early. So I wanted to do my part in making sure that people knew that it could happen to young women too, and maybe inspire another young woman to find her own cancer.
    2) I’ve been in a situation at work where someone had been very sick but nobody knew the details. Rumors flew fast and furious. At one point he had been gone for so long that we thought he had died. I didn’t want to be subject to rumors.

    Now, I’m aware that this is not a popular strategy, and of course your health is your business – but I’ve never regretted my choice to be public about it. It was actually very weird for me to move to a different job from the one I’d been in when I was diagnosed, and realize that people here were not prepared for me to casually reference appointments with my oncologist or the like. Re-publicizing it has been awkward when I’ve been out of active treatment, but still important for me.

    I did, and still do, get some of the awkward stuff mentioned by others above in the thread. But I also got a lot of support, which was great. On the other hand… the support quickly erodes when you’re done with treatment, because you’re healed and your trouble is over, right? (My boss told me on my performance review, six months after my last radiation treatment, that I had a “negative attitude.” He backpedaled faster than I’ve ever seen when I sweetly inquired whether this was a new development since MY CANCER DIAGNOSIS.) That really sucks, because it definitely does not end when you’re out of active treatment (especially for breast and other reproductive cancers where you may well be on endocrinal treatments for many years to come).

    I wish you light and love, OP, and if you ever want a cancer buddy, you can email me at this username at gmail dot com.

  36. Hey Karma, Over here.*

    My boss did something that worked well for our group. One woman was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the end of a staff meeting, boss said she had an announcement. She stated that Jane, who was present, has been diagnosed with breast cancer. She would begin treatment on X, she would be out from date-date. She added, “let’s keep things as normal as possible going forward.” This allowed Jane to tell everyone at once, get that big, OMG reaction once. It allowed Jane through boss to give people the info they needed and indicated how much information she wanted to give. She was very open to people speaking with her about it, “how are you?” “Good luck!” But she didn’t have to have the initial conversation ten times.

  37. Michelle J*

    I went through this in 2015 and for me it came down to my prognosis. I knew mine was a simpler case that with surgery would most likely be the end of treatment. I told my boss, HR and a few friends at work. My larger team was aware that I was having surgery but no details. In the end, I told those I was comfortable with only.

  38. CommanderBanana*

    I’m so sorry, LW. I had a health crisis a few jobs ago and what helped was talking to the people I was close with and and asking them to share the news I was comfortable sharing on my behalf, and letting people know how I wanted them to handle it.

  39. No Name Here*

    My experience was getting fired for having cancer (excuse me, “missing too much work” — which consisted of every other Friday for chemo treatments and absolutely nothing else because I was extremely foolishly loyal, even when it meant getting physically ill at work).

    So my best advice is to document every conversation you have about being sick, needing time off, and what sorts of promises your company makes to you regarding accommodating your illness. Also make sure you frame these conversations as requesting accommodations, and document that too. And keep copies of this documentation at home — I was fired over the phone on a weekend, so I couldn’t come back to the office for anything, not even my own property, never mind emails about my illness.

    I personally wouldn’t tell anyone who doesn’t need to know, but after a certain point it becomes impossible to hide; and at that point, I don’t think it helps you to downplay the obvious repercussions of being sick. I think that keeping up my brave face as it progressed was probably a mistake — I think part of the whole issue was that my boss thought I was faking, somehow — not that he thought I was lying about the cancer, but that I wasn’t really as disabled from my symptoms as I had told him I was. I wore a wig at work instead of a scarf or beanie, so I think he convinced himself I wasn’t “really that sick” (because if I was sick, why would he be mad that I was missing a minimal amount of work, I hadn’t even used up my sick leave by that point). So I was open from the beginning, largely because I was in excruciating pain for months prior to diagnosis, so it wasn’t something I could walk back or hide by that point. It was also a tiny company (7 or so employees), so everyone saw me every day. I’m very private, so I kept the worst of it to myself as my own problem to deal with, because I trusted my boss’s promise that “I won’t penalize you for being sick.” Given how things turned out, occasionally forgoing the wig would have probably been wiser, even if I still didn’t have discussions of my pain, exhaustion, or other symptoms. Given the lengths he went to, to fire me without having to do it to my face, I think being visibly, obviously ill would have given him second thoughts.

    Short version, protect yourself, and don’t assume your boss/company cares or has your best interests at heart. Familiarize yourself with which laws protect you, and what specifically the terms of these laws are (ADA, FMLA, state employment laws, is the company large enough for these laws to apply, have you been there long enough, etc.). Do it before you’re too sick to deal with it.

    Both I and a friend of mine had the experience where the people at work, especially bosses, didn’t really understand just how sick we were. It was a lot of a “you seem fine! why can’t you do more?” kind of attitude, a weird denial of clearly communicated facts because it didn’t personally affect them. Because a lot of symptoms are “invisible” and you have to take my word for it that I’m exhausted, nauseous, or in pain. More people than you’d expect reserve compassion and empathy for close friends and family and extend it to no one else. The last time I spoke to my friend she told me her bosses were confused that she was “acting different.” She died a couple months later.

    I hope you are employed by better people, but make sure to protect yourself because you won’t know beforehand.

    1. JAN is awesome*

      This is excellent advice. I’ll piggyback on this and say if original LW is in the US, the Job Accommodation Network is a fantastic place to learn about the laws and your rights. They are informative and helpful, and you can even call and talk to them and ask questions! I use a wheelchair and talking to JAN was the best decision I ever made while at my former toxic job. Best of luck!

    2. pancakes*

      I’m so sorry you had to go through that, and so mad on your behalf. This is all very practical and very good advice.

  40. Survivor*

    I told my boss and hr but did not share my cancer diagnosis with anyone else at work until I met another survivor a year and a half later. My treatment included multiple surgeries but no chemo, so I was able to hide it well for about 5 months until I took 6 weeks off for surgery. Work was an escape for me and as long as I was busy, I didn’t think about cancer. That would not have been the case if other people knew. It did affect some of my relationships and I know some people noticed that something was wrong with me but no one ever said anything. My relationships eventually recovered once I completed treatment and got back to my normal self.

  41. Anon woman with breast cancer*

    Hi OP. First, my sympathy and good vibes for your healing progress.

    I was diagnosed 4 October with breast cancer. I told my HR Director and HR reps, my lead, copied the two bosses on the email, told three colleagues, and I have shared in our <30 person team slack channel that I am about to undergo chemo.

    I live in Europe tho, and the director boss had in the past caused two people to go out on burnout mental leave, had caused other teammates to leave after questioing things, etc. This director would mention this too, that these people could not hack things. So since I am open by nature and I am protected in my job, and because I did not want to have people saying stuff and stigmatising me possibly, I decided to share to stop any gossip.

    If you are protected in your contract, then it should be easier, but am mot sure.

    I wish you the best outcomes and send you light and healing vibes.

  42. Close Bracket*

    Do people send out staff emails discussing their personal health issues?

    I did not have cancer, but heck no, I did not send an email with my personal health issues when I needed an extended absence. I had surgery for endometriosis twice, and both times all my employer learned was that I was having abdominal surgery, I needed to be out for X weeks minimum, possibly would need to convert to Y weeks. That’s it. That went on my FMLA forms, and that is all I told my coworkers who would be affected. One guy kind of guessed and talked about how his wife had endo surgery, and I went, “Mm hmmm,” in response. When I came back to work and could bare shuffle around, much less walk, I stuck to the “had abdominal surgery” story. I don’t think I even told my friends at work that it was for endo.

    I got a good lesson in not sharing any more than necessary the next time I requested FMLA leave to care for my mother when someone who heard from the grapevine that my mother was ill came up and said, “I’m sorry to hear about your mother.” I was *pissed*. I later learned about FMLA privacy rules, but at the same time that I learned about the rules, I learned that rules mean nothing to the kind of supervisors who will blab your private details to all and sundry.

  43. af123*

    Hi OP,
    Wishing you the best of luck in treatment! I was in this situation 5 years ago now and wanted to share what worked for me and what I wish I had done differently. You just have to follow your gut and know, as best as you can, what your boundaries are and how you like to receive support.

    After being very hesitant to tell people at first, about a month in to treatment I sent around a group email. I felt there would be a lot of rampant speculation if no one knew why I was suddenly gone for 4 months and then why I was bald and scarred (physically) and 30 pounds lighter when I returned. I’m happy that I told people, as it has also helped in the years since – I don’t have to hide that I had cancer or feel like I have to dance around it in conversations where it’s relevant. I do wish instead I had asked a close colleague to spread the news for me- it’s tough to hit a good tone with an I Have Cancer email.

    When speaking irl with people, I found that they tend to follow your lead on reactions. If I presented it matter of factly, people would respond in kind and not catastrophize. I also laid out specific boundaries – I’d rather not think about this any more than I have to, so please don’t check in randomly with me about it, or let it dominate our conversations, or treat me like I’m a fragile thing.

  44. Nep*

    Not cancer, but an autoimmune disorder that tried to kill me and involved a fair bit of treatment. (I was also the benefits person in our department.)

    I told my boss and the people I was closest to (friendly with) as well as the few coworkers I worked regularly with. It disseminated from there.

    Most people would just treat me as normal or ask off-handed how I was doing. (From what I could tell from the two people in our department who had cancer, this is what happened with them, but I could be wrong.)

    The most exhausting part were the few people who obviously cared, but cared at me in annoying ways. One would sit me down every few months and ask how I was feeling, how my treatment was going, and be surprised that I was still taking various meds. Even though I told him from the very first of these conversations that I’d be in treatment for two years.

    What I wish I had done, and what I’ve done with my relapse with almost everyone, was to be very chipper and say (truthfully), “It’s all going well! My doctor’s are pleased with my results, but it’s going to take time yet!” And then change the topic if I didn’t want to answer.

    I just needed permission to shut down other people’s questions when they weren’t helpful to me. If you need it, I give it to you.

    1. pancakes*

      Argh, I’ve experienced that weird surprise too. I developed lymphedema as a result of having a bunch of lymph nodes my cancer had spread to removed, and I have one person who always asks if I’m still dealing with it, despite me explaining every time that it’s a life-long condition I’ll always have to manage with compression, etc. What part of “life-long” or “incurable” isn’t clear?

      1. roger that*

        I have this problem with lymphedema caused by my cancer treatment too. I have never told most of my coworkers what it is, but they see me wear my compression sleeve and gauntlet and the ones I don’t know well will sometimes ask “is your hand/wrist/arm doing any better? I hoped you wouldn’t have to wear that anymore!” They mean well, but it is SO ANNOYING to be asked about the side effects of cancer as though I am weird. I just say “it’s a long-term issue,” which usually shuts it down, but it’s annoying.

  45. Eric*

    I don’t think I have anything to offer that hasn’t already been offered by the excellent responses in this post but wanted to add another story to the pile.

    I very suddenly found out that I had cancer when I was 38. I told my boss exactly what was going on and told him he was free to tell anyone that needed to know. I was more vague with everyone else at work, mostly because it puts people in an awkward situation (and I could talk about it all day because that’s really all I was thinking about at the time). I always thought I would be very reluctant to tell people if this ever happened to me but when it happened I really just wanted people to know that I may have been off my game for a reason.

    I took a week off for surgery and then worked from home for a week.

    I started an adjuvant round of chemo two months later which lasted for a year. It turned my hair white and made me walk with a visible limp in addition to making me really tired. If anyone mentioned it I told them what was going on.

    I don’t think I experienced any negative side effects of being up front with people but I work in a very supportive team within a large company.

    Best wishes on your treatment and continued wellbeing.

  46. Username1234*

    I was diagnosed with cancer at age 22 while working part-time at a small non-profit. I think at the time we were around an eight or nine person staff. Most people knew that there was generally something going on but when I was officially diagnosed I first told my direct supervisor. We then went together to talk to the executive director. It just so happened that the next day we were having a staff meeting and I ended up making a small announcement at the end about my diagnosis. During surgery and treatment I had a family member in charge of all communication and updates, I was okay with them updating my direct boss because I knew everyone was worried about me.

    It’s been four years since my diagnosis and one thing I’ve found difficult is new coworkers who don’t know about my cancer. I usually talk openly and freely about my cancer since I still have pretty regular follows ups. I’ve accidentally mentioned something cancer related in front of someone who was not around during the time of my initial treatment and it’s a bit awkward.

    I’m so sorry you have to deal with this, I’m hoping all goes well as you begin treatment and adjusting to your new normal.

    Feel free to delete this part if not allowed, but I suggest checking out First Descents when you’re physically feeling better. They provide free, week long, adventure trips to young adults with cancer. It was a great experience for me to be able to connect with others in similar situations.

  47. Krabby*

    I had two people go through this at my previous workplace (one was our President, the other was my boss). Both were very visible (facial surgery for one and full hair loss for the other), and one was life threatening. They are both out of the woods now.

    Both of them went the route of a company-wide email. One of them had me send it on their behalf. The main points they covered though were: This is what’s going on with me, this is what you will likely see changing over the next few months and this is what I need from you.

    Good luck OP. This is a really hard time, so remember to protect your mental health as well as your body. People don’t know how to act when something like this happens, so they will take their cues from you. Stand up for what you need.

  48. Katepreach*

    I was diagnosed at age 28 and told everyone, but that was partly because I was flailing around wildly trying to find a way to cope.

    (Luckily I am British so didn’t have to worry about insurance etc., and my company – Deloittes – had a lot of sick pay and also one of the partners signed off on giving me extra.)

    Unfortunately I found I lost a lot of friends during the time. This was horribly hard, but I think it was partly because they didn’t know what to say. So one part of my advice would be to tell people what would help, in the original message. People feel a lot better with something to do, and you can direct them to things you would appreciate.

    One of the things which I really didn’t appreciate was all the (probably well intentioned but unsolicited and scientifically terrible) advice. Sleep with a crystal under your pillow. You wouldn’t have got ill if you drank soy milk. Be more positive. I’ll pray for you. So if you think your co workers might do this, maybe head it off with “my doctors have the treatment covered, but what would be helpful is…”

    But anyway, it’s now more than 17 years later and my health and risks are the same as others my age. So hang in there and best wishes

    1. rageismycaffeine*

      The friends who disappear are one of the worst parts. I so sympathize with that. My social circle has contracted significantly in the three years since my diagnosis.

      1. Katepreach*

        Yeah it really sucks. I ended up keeping a few close friends and losing the second and third ranks, but I guess it taught me who I could trust.

        For anyone who’s a friend of someone going through this, the best thing you can do is show up and listen.

    2. JanetM*

      Is there a difference, in your thoughts, between, “I’ll pray for you,” “Would you like me to pray for you?” and “I will hope for the best”?

      1. Katepreach*

        “Would you like me to pray for you?” is great, because it isn’t intrusive and avoids making assumptions.

        “I’ll pray for you” is okay, I was mostly able to take it in the spirit it was meant, but I found it a poor substitute for actually doing something.

        But I did have relatives who tried to promise me that prayer would lead to cures, and I find that actively hurtful (because it hypothetically means God decided not to cure some people, etc)

      2. whoompthereitis*

        From an American who grew up in the south…

        I’ll pray for you = I’m a religious person who wants to support you and doesn’t know what else to say
        I’ll pray for you= You’re a bad person who doesn’t agree with me/believe what I believe, and I’m a better than you

        Would you like me to pray for you?= I’ll pray for you whether you like it or not*

        I will hope for the best=Sending warm fuzzy thoughts your way! Hope it turns out okay for you! I’m so sorry!

        *Yes, I’m sure there are respectful, religious people out there but fun story, one time I sprained my knee while hiking and someone in a nearby group helped me splint it. It was a church group and the preacher came over and asked if he could pray with me and I said no thank you. And then he proceeded to pray over me as I lay there in pain and couldn’t stop him. Asking ‘would you like me to pray for you’ assumes that the person is religious or okay with you being religious at them. And now if they they’re not okay with it you’ve just added more stress to their day :(

      3. pancakes*

        I’m not a religious person so I’d vastly prefer the latter, but doesn’t this also depend on the religion to some extent? If prayers are considered more effective if the person being prayed for knows they’re being prayed for, I think you need to ask. If prayers are considered effective in and of themselves I’m not sure why you’d have to mention it.

        1. JanetM*

          pancakes wrote, “If prayers are considered effective in and of themselves I’m not sure why you’d have to mention it.”

          Because I’m Pagan, and some people do not want Pagan prayers on their behalf.

  49. nonprofit writer*

    I’m the person who wrote this question:

    So I’ve been there!

    Once I realized I was staying at my job while dealing with my diagnosis, I had to tell people. I told my boss & his boss & a few people I was close with. My immediate team of about 5 coworkers I sent an email to before leaving early for the day (at my boss’s suggestion as I was a bit emotional).

    After that I was … not sure how to put it… kind of all over the place. I felt strongly that i wanted people to know, that I didn’t want to act like it was a dirty secret. And I worked for a very supportive, health-focused nonprofit (not cancer related). So I started telling people one by one. Long, involved conversations.

    It was exhausting. Everyone was wonderful and supportive but I didn’t realize how much it would take out of me to have that conversation repeatedly. So I stopped having it, let word spread, and some people didn’t hear about it until after I was already out on medical leave and they wondered where I was.

    Once I was back, I did get lots of supportive comments, a few intrusive ones, but nothing too bad. I was fortunate that I didn’t have many side effects of treatments, so after a while it was back to business as usual and no one mentioned it much.

    I’ll say that the exhaustion from telling lots of people in that early stage made me more cautious about telling people who didn’t need to know (work and otherwise). So at this point in my life now there are plenty of people who don’t know I ever had cancer. But I actually feel closer in some ways to all my former colleagues (I’ve since left that job) because they are part of the subset of people who do know.

    Bottom line is, take it slow, don’t feel you owe anyone information, and let people know what you need & prefer. And if your cancer center has resources like social workers/therapists, do avail yourself of them as they can help with those kinds of things too.

    Sending lots of healing thoughts and please update us!

  50. Puggles*

    When I was diagnosed with breast cancer almost four years ago it was very hard to talk about it. Even to say the words “cancer” or “chemo” was difficult. At work I told my immediate supervisor, an associate dean whom I also consider a friend, and my coworker and a few close friends, including the associate dean’s wife. I told my coworker that it was very hard for me to talk about this so she and my boss pretty much kept everybody at bay for me, especially when I started wearing a wig. Everybody was so supportive when they found out. No one pushed me to talk about it so it was pretty much up to me whether I wanted to talk about it. Even now, I still get emotional typing this. But yes, I’m better now and that is good.

  51. stampysmom*

    Best wishes to you OP. In my case I told my close co-workers first but told them it wasn’t a secret per se, that if anyone asked I didn’t care if they said something. I had bone cancer and the surgery was long and very deep. It took some time to recover (I actually had 2 – they didn’t get all the first time). Lots of people asked co-workers where I was. When I got back to work and people welcomed me back from Mat leave I told those people too. And some customers if they asked. People are actually very interested when you have different kind of cancer. Last year when I hit my 5 year cancer free scan, I pretty much bragged to everyone and posted it as my status update on FB. I still have to go until the 10 year mark – tomorrow I go for year 6 check up. I tend to crack a lot of jokes about it and I love medical things so for me, I didn’t keep a real lid on it.

  52. Susan*

    A former boss of mine went through this. She had appointed a co-worker with whom she was especially close to be her spokeswoman. Boss sent out the email briefly explaining what was happening, that she did not want to talk about it but would be updating Spokeswoman regularly, and that if we had any questions we could ask Spokeswoman. That worked well.

    1. Midwesterner*

      I think this works well. It totally depends on the culture of the workplace too but this seems like one of the best set-ups.

  53. Anonymous academic*

    Hi OP, and sorry about your diagnosis.

    When I was diagnosed with colon cancer at 48 I told my direct reports, my boss, HR, and selected other individuals I worked with, which included committee members. Eventually I also told college and faculty leadership (I work in academia) because I had some faculty leadership roles that I might need to step down from if things got bad. I ended up being out of the office about 1/3rd of the time for 6 months while I was going through chemo; 3 days off for every 10 days worked, on my 2-week chemo cycle.

    Word did not really seem to spread, but people who knew did sincerely ask me how I was doing occasionally, and no one asked me any prying questions. Appearance-wise, I lost some weight but otherwise didn’t look particularly different, so people who didn’t interact with me frequently probably didn’t know what was going on. (In an odd reversal, my hair actually became more tenacious and stopped falling out entirely while I was on chemo. I was on a drug combo that doesn’t generally cause hair loss, but nobody else seems to have had this particular side effect, that I know of.)

    Fortunately I had plenty of sick leave saved up to cover all my absences; otherwise I probably would have had to go out on short term disability. For the past 18 years I’d generally only taken enough leave to go to the dentist and the eye doctor each year. It’s very unusual for me to even get a head cold.

    At this point (a year after ending chemo) things look good, we’re just keeping an eye on things to make sure it doesn’t come back. I did use Caringbridge for keeping friends up to date, because I didn’t want to put my health stuff on social media. Any work friends who were connected to me via Facebook got the link to the Caringbridge site, but I didn’t otherwise share it with work colleagues.

  54. Freya*

    I’m sorry about your Dx. I hope you have access to the care that you need and your center allows you to have access to support for young adult cancer patients — we really do get lost in the shuffle at times.

    Everyone is different – and every work dynamic is a bit different.
    I’ve been through this a few times.
    First was with DH. He was dx at 25 shortly after we got married with Hodgkin’s lymphoma — he worked through all of his chemo – treatments having them on Fri and being back to work on Monday. It was pretty widely known that this was going on with him – he was really open about it. There was an email that went out as they had a leave donation program. Overall everyone was pretty reasonable about things – — I’ll second or third the Caringbridge suggestion above — having one point for information takes a lot off of you and your caregiver(s)

    When was initially Dx at 29 with AML – my boss got a phone call from my husband and worked with him to get my FMLA paperwork done. I didn’t even talk to her the first week. She knew I had an appointment and that I wasn’t feeling well — but I got directly admitted to the hospital. She told our dept chair and our immediate group (these were people who were also invited to my wedding and we were a very close group) – worked with HR and DH to get all my paperwork done. Outside of our dept and HR, people only knew that I was out on medical leave for an undetermined amount of time. When I relapsed I wasn’t back at work yet – the same group knew. They’d stop by to see me at the hospital — they were very good about the concern for me & making sure to check in on how DH was doing. My dept chair and our former dept chair were concerned with checking that I access to the correct specialists and wasn’t being overlooked. DH’s entire company knew — but he knew he needed the support and some of our friends from undergrad worked at the same place. They organized blood drives and and bone marrow donor registration drive with Bethematch.

    We were both lucky in that our respective workplaces were science based so we didn’t have to fend off the snakeoil cure madness from that front — it did come from others

    Some resources that I’ve found helpful for both work and navigating this in general:

    This can be sent to individuals or shared as a subtle hint if you get one of those people who have to make it about them.

    Cancer & Careers has a lot of info about navigating work & cancer — including some advice on sharing

    Stupid Cancer – resources for Young Adults

    Uluman Foundation had Young Adult Patient Navigators in some hospital systems – but does have some good info if you aren’t in their area

    First Descents has some fun supportive activities that you can apply to join if you are medically cleared

    If you happen to be in the DC area if not they have a fair amount of info online

    Nationwide (assuming you are US based) Imerman Angels will match you with a mentor who has been there

    1. gracak*

      I have shared that LA Times article with so many people. It’s a permanent bookmark on my computer.

      I have found that some people are truly unable to respond to things as if they are not the center of the story. Those are people you have to give limited information to and set some boundaries. Some of the hardest parts of being seriously sick can be managing the people who try to make your experience their drama.

  55. Kendra*

    I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a few months ago, and have done surgery and one round of chemo so far. I started out not telling anyone very much, mostly because I found it too difficult to talk about. Euphemisms and alternate names were helpful; instead of “I have ovarian cancer,” it was, “I have a mass on my ovary;” that conveys some of the seriousness of the condition without either freaking people out too much, or underselling it to the point that you feel like you’re lying.

    Then, later on when I started chemo, I’d gotten to the point where I was more okay with talking about it, and I also needed to let people know why I’d be gone so often (even aside from the chemo itself and any recovery, there’s a lot of follow-up appointments and lab work, and those take time). I started telling more people, and made sure to let them know that they could tell other people, too, because I, personally, am more comfortable telling a few people and then letting the rumor mill work. You give up control over what’s going around that way, but you also don’t have to spend anywhere near as much emotional energy, so YMMV; do the one that feels right to you.

    The key thing, I think, is to remember that you can start out sharing very little, and then increase that as you become comfortable with it, or vice versa; you don’t have to pick a way to go and then stick with it to the bitter end. You may be totally fine with sharing one day, and the next day it makes you cry; let yourself feel the way you feel, and hold back on the days when you need to do that to function. It’s your illness, your treatment, and your body, and you don’t owe anyone any specifics that you don’t want to share.

  56. CatMintCat*

    I have been going through this this year, with a breast cancer diagnosis in July. I am a teacher in a small school (ten adults on site is a busy day) and I told my Principal first, then “announced” on our school Facebook chat to the rest of the staff. I had much time off, with surgery, chemo and chemo-related illness and, now that I’m back and bald (and going again soon for radiation) the entire community knows. I have been dealing with small children’s questions for weeks, and have answers well and truly worked out for them.

    To me, the CaringBridge feels more public and exposed and “out there” than just telling people, but everyone is different.

    My prognosis is excellent, and I am aiming to be back at school full strength after Christmas, hopefully.

  57. aepyornis*

    Do not hesitate to give pointers to your coworkers about how you need them to handle the situation. While cancer is no longer the taboo it was even 5 years ago, serious illnesses still tend to make people uncomfortable, anxious or just scared to say the wrong thing, which might make for awkward moments or people might start avoiding you for not other reason than they have no clue how to act around you and freak out while pondering whether or not to ask “how are you?” in the mornings.

    So don’t hesitate to tell them that you will update them and they don’t need to ask how you are doing or ask for details, or treat you any differently (or anything else you want to do/not do). They will be relieved. Expect also some people to constantly come up with their neighbour’s cousin’s turtle’s cancer stories so also do not hesitate to let them know that you cannot handle anymore cancer stories in your life atm (in a friendly way).

    I have to say that I struggle with the whole spokesperson idea, unless it is your boss giving necessary updates in your absence. I just find the whole idea just bizarre and I have never used one or been that spokesperson but hey, why not if that is what you feel at ease the most :).

  58. PRBP*

    I went through cancer about 15 years ago and was very open with my team about what was happening and how I was doing. When I was out of the office due to treatment, one of my family members would send email updates to a few people at my office and they knew it was ok with me for them to share with anyone who asked. My co-workers were great and I have no regrets about sharing.
    In hindsight though, I would say it may be highly dependent on where you work and your relationship with your co-workers. I switched jobs a few years ago and would probably share significantly less with current co-workers.
    Best wishes for your treatment!

  59. Asenath*

    I’ve told my story before. I tend to be a very private person, and initially thought I wouldn’t tell anyone about my breast cancer diagnosis – although I did tell my siblings and my closest friends early on, well, when the biopsy results came back. Then I decided there was nothing to be secretive about, everyone was going to know something was wrong as soon as my usage of sick leave days suddenly increased, and if they were going to gossip about that, they might as well have a fact or two. But I only actually told the handful of people I worked with directly, and they were all very good about talking about it only occasionally and never being intrusive. I suspect word got out, but the larger circle of co-workers never talked about it at all. I don’t think I even notified the people I reported to – we work very independently, and rarely saw them. I was lucky in that I responded to treatment well, and I didn’t need chemo. I personally found it better to work when I could because I liked the structure of work more than sitting at home and brooding. I’ve got good sick leave and work is flexible. Aside from the time after the lumpectomy, my time off was a matter of a few hours here, an half-day there for appointments, plus a short time each morning off for the weeks of radiation – which was conveniently administered in a facility very close to my work. If I did feel tired, I took an extra day.

    It never occurred to me to send out an email about my personal health! It was all face-to-face, although I put a fairly generic out of office message on my email when I knew I was going to be missing for more than an hour or two.

    Good luck.

  60. Pants*

    I got my diagnosis on July 19, 2011 and had surgery on August 4. (I’ve found cancer turns people into walking almanacs of various dates.) I worked at a tax firm at the time and it was a very inconvenient time for me to get cancer. *eyeroll* I told HR and my team and then told a few other friends in the firm. I knew it would spread around after that. Confidentiality didn’t exist there. (Which is how I came to find out that my boss continually said “Why me?!” when I was out because my cancer was inconvenient to her. So happy to be out of that place.) Anyway–expect that no matter who you tell, word will trickle around. Nature of the beast.

    However, what I really want to warn you to expect is the onslaught of Cancer-Face and The Cancer Whispers. I found people didn’t know how to react when I broke the news and I’d get one or both of the above and then one/both again whenever I saw them later. Cancer-Face is simply the expression people give you when you break the news–shock, discomfort as it reminds them of their own mortality, and then an overly concerned expression most likely to do with the mortality thing on top of actually caring. (Hopefully with the actually caring.) The Cancer Whispers are far more annoying. It’s how people will speak to you. As if their words will break you. “How are you dooooooing?” in a hushed, concerned/Cancer-Faced tone. I was getting The Cancer Whispers years later. No matter what I told people regarding my health, or how irreverent I was about it (and I am so so so much so), people still CancerWhispered me.

    Essentially, prepare for people to treat you a little differently, as if you’re the most fragile thing in the world. You’ll have to dictate how you want them to speak to you etc., but people may not actually follow your wishes. Know that it isn’t about you, it’s about their own fears.

    Also, know that you’ve got this. It’s a shitty club to be a part of, but you’ve got a lot of friends. I hope you get to ring the holy shit out of that bell sooner rather than later.


    1. roger that*

      Yuuuuup. “How’s your health?” even years later. I’m sorry, would you ask a normal 30 year old that question??

  61. WilmaGrayson*

    Wow! I am in an uncannily similar position, including age (quite young), supportive org culture, and relationships of varied closeness with my colleauges. Here’s what I did:

    In my case, the only person who NEEDED to know was my manager (we’re a small shop with no HR). I told her about it as soon as I knew I would need to take medical leave. After that, I waited to share what was going on with my colleagues until I felt more comfortable (and less freaked out) with it myself. I wanted to be able to present things to them in a calm, matter-of-fact way in the hopes that they would take my lead in terms of their level of emotional intensity around it. I found that worked really well. I also sent short emails to all my colleagues (not individually, just a group email) after a couple of major procedures/milestones that I knew most of the team knew about, just letting folks know whether I was ok and when they were likely to see me at work again.

    Good luck. Hope all goes well. This really sucks, and it will suck for a while, but it’s great that you work for such a supportive organization.

  62. Mimmy*

    My internship supervisor had cancer surgery earlier this year (well before I met her) and I think she’s still going through health issues. She told me early on about her diagnosis but hasn’t been as clear on how much of an impact it’ll have on her availability. When I told her the other day about my husband’s multiple procedures in the last couple months (for minor things, thankfully), she finally said “yeah, me too…that’s why I’ve been in and out”. I’ve been taking her lead with the conversations and trying hard to not ask invasive questions.

    So the moral of this story is that if you do decide to tell your coworkers about your diagnosis, be as clear as possible on how it may impact your work and availability. You don’t need to go into specifics, but it really helps to know what to expect, for example that you may be very fatigued from time to time and need to work from home (if your job allows for that) or that you’ll have appointments every week on x day.

    Best wishes with your treatments.

  63. Erin F*

    I’m sorry you are going through this! My husband got his cancer diagnosis this year. It was a huge surprise because he’s in his early 30s and has colon cancer.
    We both told our bosses right away because we knew there was going to be time off for appointments and surgery. Everyone else was told on an individual basis when we felt comfortable. We both work in large offices so there are still a lot of people who don’t know at all. Or who just know he has doctors appointments but not the reason.
    Something I’ve found that’s interesting is since he is so young and outwardly healthy looking people seem to almost forget he has cancer. I expected to deal with a lot more sad looks and questions at work but for the most part people only check in occasionally and are more likely to ask about our kids or weekend plans than cancer. I think it’s helped that we’ve both been really straightforward when talking about it too.
    If it helps you it might be good to consider adding a therapist to your care team if you don’t have one already. I know I’ve found it very helpful as the support person to have one not just for emotional support but also for practical things. I was nervous to tell people about my husband’s diagnosis and my therapist literally role played with me on what I would say and how that would make me feel.

    1. C Average*

      My sister is a colon cancer survivor and was quite young when she got diagnosed. In my efforts to support her, a resource I found really helpful was comedian Jesse Case’s podcast “Jesse Versus Cancer.” It’s honest, educational, and funny as hell. It really helped me better understand what my sister was experiencing, and it also helped me formulate the right questions to ask when I accompanied her on doctor’s appointments.

  64. TechWorker*

    My colleague/friend had cancer (he’s in remission and doing great), he announced it on Facebook (where he has a bunch of colleagues obviously s well as other friends) and let it spread from there. He was already off work sick by the time he was diagnosed though so there was less ‘accidental finding out at the coffee cooler’. I totally get worrying about that though – I have a tendancy to react badly to bad news (probably not that unusual) and would be mortified if someone telling me they had a serious illness ended up feeling responsible for *my* emotions.

  65. Poppy the Flower*

    Oh man, the idea of sending out an office wide email or Caringbridge makes me really panicky!

    I’ve been dealing with a chronic medical condition since birth. I think my perspective is a little different having grown up with this but it’s that there are a lot of societal expectations around Having an Illness (or disability). I have always been more interested in being myself than a stereotype and keeping my diagnosis/details private is part of claiming a full identity for myself. It’s not about shame or pride (seriously… wtf). I have also encountered a LOT of idiotic behaviour around my illness and yep mostly from adults who should know better.

    So this is how I would/have handled it (strategy for keeping things more private):
    -Tell the people who need to know eg boss, HR. I would usually tell these people my diagnosis and expected treatment/recovery course (Such as, “I need to have surgery and the doctor expects x weeks recovery” or “I will have treatment once every two weeks and have been told to expect to be out for two days after”)
    -Update the people who need to know with any relevant changes to the treatment plan or recovery, keep in communication when you can and work together about coming up with plans such as if you plan to work from home, etc. Basically, do what you can to help make the logistics clear and workable.
    -Tell close friends at work/anyone else I felt comfortable sharing with
    -Be explicit about what you don’t want, eg I don’t want my diagnosis shared with the team, I don’t want any fundraisers organised in my name, etc
    -I would, however, advise you (or your boss/HR) to let others know that you have been diagnosed with a Serious Medical Condition and that you expect to be out for (6 weeks) (intermittent leave throughout the year) (etc) and who they can expect to fill your role when you are out. I’d probably add a line about how I appreciate the support but I’m looking forward to work being a bit of a mental break so I’d appreciate if others treated me as normal and didn’t bring it up before I did… or something like that. Basically, this is to help solve communication and “fairness” issues without impinging on privacy too much. To me this is key, otherwise people just get confused and speculate. “Serious medical condition” is one of my fave terms for people who kinda need to know but don’t need details ;)
    -Don’t be afraid to be somewhat blunt about not wanting to share much… the “work is my mental break” line is a great one!

    1. Poppy the Flower*

      I forgot to say, I haven’t lost my hair but I’ve had some really obvious surgery scars and I kept to the same vague lines. “I had surgery” “serious medical condition that required surgery” — even though it’s a bit of active denial (sometimes people could guess details), people didn’t need to know the full details from me and it still kept things private.

  66. gracak*

    You don’t mention who you WANT to know. Are you trying to figure out what you owe to people to let them know, or are you ready to tell people and just aren’t sure how?

    Cancer is a weird disease because, in an effort to be supportive to people experiencing it, people can become a bit too involved sometimes, similar to how people are with a pregnancy. We all kind of know how it goes, stage 1, stage 2, surgery, chemo, hair loss, appetite loss, walks and marches and ribbons and people shaving their head in solidarity.

    But cancer has changed a lot recently. (I experienced it with a parent 15 years ago). What was serious a decade ago might be less serious now. Treatments look different. Chemo can be less debilitating. My point is people might feel a need to be involved because it’s CANCER in a way that they wouldn’t if it was lupus or sarcoidosis or a stroke.

    But, you get to decide what you want from people. Dealing with other people’s reactions to your difficulty can suck up a lot of time and energy. It can turn every work interaction into “so how are you really doing.” And it can also be really wonderful and supportive I’m sure.

    So first decide what you will benefit from having people know. If it were me, I’d want privacy but be scared of the drama of people finding out from somewhere else that my vague medical issue is cancer. So I’d email out:

    “As some of you already know, I have been dealing with some health issues of late. I wanted to share with you all that I’m currently undergoing treatment for —–. I have a wonderful support system so I am managing everything well. I want to share it just because I will be gone for medical appointments more frequently in the foreseeable future. For now it doesn’t look like it will affect my work life any further than that.

    I would really appreciate if I could ask something of you all. It feels like my whole personal life is now about cancer, and I am hoping work can be an oasis of normal life. I’d really appreciate if we could proceed as normal and not discuss my health at work. It will be so helpful to turn off that part of my brain for 8 hours a day, and continue with the professional boundaries that we have in place to keep personal health issues off the table for conversation.

    Thank you all so much, and I will of course tell you if there is anything else I need or anything changes.”

  67. Bow Tie*

    When my colleague was diagnosed with cancer, she had her boss call me and other key people to tell the news that she had cancer but did not want to discuss it or be asked any questions. We were then asked to spread the word to our teams of the diagnosis and the wish to not discuss it. It seemed to work. I never asked her any questions and I’m not aware of others asking her questions either.

  68. Survivor for this post*

    OP, I’m sorry you’re facing this. I hope that all goes well for you.

    When I was diagnosed, I had no choice but to tell my coworkers. I’m in healthcare and they did the testing that they used to diagnose me. With HIPAA, the only option would have been the “know but not know” mask that we all put on when we run across each others’ tests. Being immunocompromised affected my job duties since my Oncologists didn’t want me in the live organism labs. With all of that, the easiest thing was to just tell them.

    I told a few close friends at work who spread the word and then gave details as my treatment progressed. They were overwhelmingly supportive and were great about taking my clues whether I felt like talking about it or not. I didn’t have to spend energy that I didn’t have pretending that everything was fine.

  69. different seudonym*

    Went thru a similar experience. I will add only a couple of things to what has been said.

    First, I notice that OP is worrying about how to care for others. My advice is, try to let that go. You need care from others now, maybe a lot depending on your treatment plan, and it’s best to be in that mindset as soon as possible. People can be really demanding, for example asking you to comfort them in their shock at your diagnosis, or tell them how to help, and it can get out of hand really quick. You deserve care, and you can decline to give others care right now. They will have to deal with fear of the big C by themselves. They are capable of that.

    Second, I limited info at work, and I think it was a good choice, because I find many of my colleagues emotionally demanding, and because my supervisors are trustworthy, though probably most of all because I had good logistics and did not need dogwalkers, babysitters, rides, etc. It did make it weird when I went back; some people, none close friends, were sort of hurt that I hadn’t reached out. Interestingly, all those who were most seriously put out were members of a different culture from me, so I think I probably could not have predicted or prevented their reaction anyways. They seem to have recovered.

    Good luck.

  70. msk*

    13 years ago, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I’d been with the company a long time, and we were a pretty close knit department–not in each other’s business but knowing a bit about families and interests outside work. I remember a time when people whispered the word “cancer” as if it was dirty, or a flaw. I didn’t want to give cancer that kind of power over me. I told many of my coworkers, especially those i had a personal connection to, or that would have their work affected by my absence or my feeling ill. I told them individually. My prognosis was very good, though treatment was not going to be a walk in the park. I felt supported by their good wishes and never regretted how I handled it.

  71. C Average*

    My younger sister is a colon cancer survivor, and she opted for transparency: after spending a few days letting the diagnosis sink in, she sent out a short but thorough email blast at work and Facebook post to family and friends.

    She shared her diagnosis, her prognosis, And her expected treatment timeline. She stated that she wasn’t ready to talk about it, and that she would like to talk about cats, bicycling, and job-related stuff only. She wrapped up by saying that she had good insurance, an excellent care team, and a reliable support network, and that the best things people could do if they had goodwill to burn was to donate to the local cat rescue and get their goddamned colonoscopies on schedule without whining about it.

    She wound up with a permanent ostomy, and she’s chosen to be transparent about that, too, as part of her disability activism and her efforts to destigmatize ostomy bags and similar equipment. (Besides, it sometimes makes crazy noises and she wanted to preemptively address that with people she’d be attending meetings with.)

    I know not a lot of people would be comfortable being that open, but it was important to her that shame not be a part of her journey.

    My sister is FIERCE, y’all.

  72. theBaldLadyintheFarCubicle*

    For me complete openness worked the best. I just told everyone and made it clear it was an OK topic of conversation – and they could pass it on – my hair fell out with chemo anyway so it was pretty obvious! I was in a government agency with offices in different states so there were some co-workers I wouldn’t see for weeks at a time, and it was easier if they were pre-warned. Yes, you do have to field a lot of concern, but they are going to be worried about you anyway. I found it much easier if they know in a general way what you’re facing. Some days I would respond to “how are you?” with “fine! don’t want to talk about it!” and some days I would respond with five minutes of wailing at them in the break room, and people just lived with it. For me, matter of fact was by far the best way, and being completely open actually reduced the awkwardness because no-one had to pretend anything. I took my cues from other people as to how much were comfortable with, and they took their cues from me.

    1. MMD*

      Openness worked well for me also. In my case everything moved very fast – less than a month from “hey, where did that weird lump on my neck come from?” to T Cell Lymphoma, so it was a shock to everyone.
      I sent out an email to the people I work most closely with to let them know my diagnosis and that I’d be out of the office periodically for treatment. We’re a big company so most of the people I work with every day are in different buildings, different countries, etc, so telling them in person wasn’t an option. I told a few key people in my building and they took care of spreading the word locally.
      There were a lot of questions, but I didn’t have an issue talking about it and it was nice to know how many people cared. I felt supported by everyone, which definitely helped. I know that this isn’t the right approach for everyone, but it worked for me.

  73. Woman in Tech with Breast Cancer*

    I am similar to you in that I am a young professional that was recently diagnosed with cancer. I was diagnosed with breast cancer back in March, and I had surgery that took me out for April and May.

    I told everyone that I was diagnosed through email before my treatment started. I did get the pity looks, which annoyed me, but I tried to keep any conversation around my cancer about technical details. I told people I was feel well, even if I wasn’t, and eventually the pity looks subsided.

    I also benefited because I didn’t need intravenous chemo (still crossing my fingers on that one). So, even though my cancer medications keep me a little downtrodden, I do not look tired.

    The reason I told everyone was because I have never taken extended leave in my 7 years, and felt it was better to get ahead of the gossip mill. I was afraid that people would see me as less capable, because that’s something that happens to women, but so far no one has indicated they view me as such.

    However, if you don’t want to share, that’s also perfectly fine. It does take a lot of energy to deal with questions and sympathy. There’s no protocol to deal with this; you should do what feels right to you.

  74. Breast Solidarity*

    In the midst of chemo now.

    When I was first diagnosed I told my boss and was clear I wanted to keep it strictly on a need-to-know basis. I have told my immediate department but kept it quiet otherwise. Work is my safe space where I can not think about my cancer, so keeping things quiet helps with that. I don’t want lots of people asking me how I am doing and reminding me.

    The wig has proven to me* that no one is looking at us as much as we think they are! It seems so obvious to me that I am wearing a wig but so far everyone who has commented on my hair has thought I just did something different to it! Even some people in my department didn’t realize I was wearing a wig even though they know I am going through chemo!

    I also happen to work at an academic medical center, so some of my colleagues outside my department have seen me in the oncology department, but they have been discrete. I dress in work clothes even on treatment days so people who see me coming and going don’t realize I am not just at work.

    I did recently do a caringbridge site, but I have my settings as private so no one can search for me. I have not shared it with people at work because, again, I want to keep work my cancer-free space.

    * mom was right after all!

  75. Telling everybody*

    My partner dealt with her cancer by telling everyone all about it. And, I mean everyone… family, friends, coworkers, HR. She proceeded almost in a Ring Theory approach telling everyone in the innermost ring, then the next, and the next and so on.

    When telling someone about it she would give them every. single. detail. How the cancer was discovered (multiple scans and biopsies), how the severity was assessed (least severe, but still scary), the doctors she was seeing and what each of them said, the genetics of her cancer, treatment options, and so forth. It would generally take her well over half an hour when telling a person about it for the first time. I came to believe she went into so much detail and was so factual in the telling partly to control her own emotions and partly to not let emotions overwhelm the person she was telling.

    If it was me, I would never have done it that way. I’d have been much more circumspect and careful about who I told. But, in the end, it wasn’t about me. It was about her. And, that was the way that worked for her.

    1. nonprofit writer*

      “partly to control her own emotions and partly to not let emotions overwhelm the person she was telling”

      Yes, that was it exactly for me when I had cancer. I wanted to be sure the person knew it was early stage, that I would be fine, that I had good doctors, etc etc. I eventually stopped with that level of detail because it became too much for me. I also realized that I was doing it mostly as a way of reassuring myself and forestalling questions that might get me scared all over again. (Yes, for those of you who have never had cancer–you don’t realize how chilling a well-meaning question can be, or even a sincere expression of what feels like sympathy. Every time I heard someone say to me, “Oh, but your kids are so little!” it sent chills down my spine. Yes, I was well aware that I had young children!)

  76. Roger*

    I had surgery for prostate cancer and few months before I started my current job in 2017. At the time there was no need to tell people at work, and I didn’t. However, early in 2019 the cancer returned which meant radiation treatment. I decided to be 100% open about it because 1) I don’t think there are any secrets in the work place; and 2) I would possibly require medical leave. I soon regretted having told my boss who, within minutes, started talking to me about who could replace me while I was out. I felt angry at her, and it really interfered with my work. She also started treating me like a sick person which made me even angrier. I pulled back from work, only doing the minimum required of me. I discussed these issues, but I feel as if she is treating me with kid gloves, and keeping prime projects away from me “just in case.” It was the wrong decision for me.

  77. Betty*

    As the receiver of “I have cancer” news, there are two addition things I would want to hear in basically the same sentence.

    First, what’s the prognosis? I mean, cancer is never a bundle of fun, but there’s “we caught it early and while I’m going to have a rough time with chemo for a little while I’m expected to make a full recovery in time” and then there’s I have three months to live”. You don’t need to go into huge amounts of detail at all, but some kind of concise summary would be much appreciate so I don’t have to tiptoe around what I can and can’t ask and how I should expect things to go in the near future.

    Second, an indication of how you’d like to manage it at work. For example, “I’m planning to send out a big email just before I go on medical leave, but there won’t really be any news until then” says to me to express sympathy but let you lead the way on sharing – but its not a taboo topic. “I don’t really want to talk about it at work, but I thought I should let you know” says STFU. “I’m planning to start raising money for Cancer Research UK, and I was wondering if you’d help me distribute these awareness posters in the loos” says that you are planning to fly your flag high and I shouldn’t worry about talking about it.

    1. Breast Solidarity*

      The thing is prognosis is often a moving target, especially early on. If the prognosis is anything but excellent it is also going to be a sensitive subject most of us aren’t going to want to talk about.

      1. pancakes*

        Yes and yes. My prognosis changed considerably during my first round of treatment. The idea that everyone with a diagnosis is going to have a handle on their prognosis early on is not realistic, and the idea that they should share their prognosis with people they aren’t close to in order to gratify their curiosity makes me scowl. Getting a cancer diagnosis doesn’t and shouldn’t transform the details of someone’s healthcare into community property.

      2. Victoria Monks*

        I agree. Do NOT ask about the stage or the prognosis. That is very private and perhaps devastating information. Don’t make me say “it’s stage 4, and I don’t know how long I have to live.”

    2. pancakes*

      I’d like to add, this in particular strikes me as stunningly self-regarding and unrealistic: “…so I don’t have to tiptoe around what I can and can’t ask and how I should expect things to go in the near future.” Firstly, there’s no harm whatsoever in being thoughtful about directing healthcare-related questions at coworkers. There’s no virtue or social advantage in being impulsive about asking an acquaintance questions about their body, their health, or their mortality. Second, if cancer diagnoses were accompanied by a sense of what to expect people wouldn’t find them nearly as terrifying as we do! Not knowing what to expect in terms of how far the cancer has spread and whether treatment will be successful are huge factors in how scary it is to be diagnosed. On some level you must be aware of this. Why not try to get in touch with that level before talking about it?

      1. nonprofit writer*

        Yes, agreed 100%. Sorry, Betty, but you’re not owed information about anyone’s prognosis and it’s rather stunning to think that you expect a coworker (or anyone really!) to say to you, “I have three months to live.” I mean, can you imagine yourself going around saying those words out loud to people? I am sure your intentions are good, but since you’ve put this out here, I do want to say as someone who’s had cancer, please, please do not ask *anyone* their prognosis. (Mine was very good, btw, and I’m doing fine–but that didn’t make it easier when people said things to me like, “Did they give you a number?” which I only can assume meant did they tell me when I might die???) You don’t actually need to know “what you can ask.” You don’t have to ask anything beyond, “How are you doing?” or “How are things going?” If they want to share details, they will. Maybe they’ll want to talk with you about the Super Bowl or a new movie–not everyone dealing with cancer wants to talk about it all the time.

        Your #2 item is good–please stick with that for coworkers.

    3. roger that*

      I agree with the other responders here that being asked about the prognosis or being expected to share that is extremely upsetting. I have had cancer twice (the second was a recurrence of the original diagnosis), and the prognosis is really unclear, especially at the beginning. Before I started treatment, we did not know (for certain) the size of the tumor or whether it had spread to any lymph nodes, which are very important characteristics for prognosis with my kind of cancer. When I recurred, what I initially thought was the prognosis turned out to be super wrong once I had surgery (it got worse after surgery), and I cannot imagine having to share with coworkers that actually, things were looking a lot worse now than we’d anticipated. What they needed to know was the days I would be out of the office, who would cover when I was out, and that I appreciated them keeping work a normal place for me. Even now, many clean scans later, the actual words my doctor used to describe my prognosis chill me to the bone, and I almost never share them with anyone, let alone my coworkers.

      What you’re hoping for is to be told whether or not we are about to die, basically. First, many of us don’t know the answer to that shortly after our diagnosis. Second, even if we know, it’s not anyone else’s business. I’d really encourage you to reconsider your idea that this is information people should share with anyone who wants to know.

  78. Squeeze of Lemon*

    I’m so sorry, OP.

    A colleague, one of the kindest and loveliest people I know, wanted to let people know what was going on without upsetting anyone. She wrote a brief email saying that she was sorry she’d been out a lot and was going to be out more in the future and to reach the attachment if we wanted more info. In the attachment, she explained the situation and gave a few details about the prognosis and the treatments.

    She really thought a lot about how best to inform people, and she decided on this method because it allowed her to acknowledge the situation, but it also allowed people to “opt out” if they didn’t want to hear or know the details (they could just not open the attachment). I was really impressed by how even during such a difficult time she was still thinking about others.

    Her treatment went well and she’s back at work now. I hope it goes well for you, too.

  79. pancakes*

    I had cancer several years ago and didn’t tell anyone besides my boss and my staffing agency and don’t regret that at all. I distinctly recall reading, during the brief period between my diagnosis and starting treatment, an essay or something by a woman who said that after she told her coworkers about her breast cancer diagnosis, there were people who stared at her chest every time she entered the room. Yes, that sounds pretty ridiculous, but even people who seem pretty smart and sophisticated can be really, really awkward (or worse) about illness and mortality. I already had a pretty keen sense of that going in because I’d seen it happen with my mother. A formerly close friend of hers who was really into running and working out, for example, couldn’t seem to handle being around someone with a deadly illness, and backed way off until the funeral.

    Another consideration for me was that I felt like cancer instantly took over so much of day-to-day life, my energy, and my mind that it felt like a respite to have one part of my life (work) stay more or less untouched.

    When my hair fell out it only took a couple days, mostly over a weekend. I took the Monday off, maybe Tuesday too, and returned to the office in a wig just like the bob I’d had for years before. That’s probably not realistic for people who don’t have a distinctive cut to begin with and don’t live in a city with Broadway-quality wig makers, but it worked for me.

    In a subsequent job a couple years after my treatment I was a bit more open with a couple people at work here and there, and I do somewhat regret that. One woman in particular acted as if there was something shameful about me having had cancer, to the point that I eventually said to her, “I’m not sure where you’re coming from with this but it wasn’t something I chose for myself.” There are a lot of people out there with strange and reactionary ideas about illness.

  80. Ursula*

    Not exactly the same but my husband had a pretty grim cancer diagnosis several years back when I was in my late 20’s and him early 30’s. I found I really needed to tell people so they would know why my performance wouldn’t be at the bar it usually was. Honestly, I’m so glad we shared with everyone – people were extremely supportive and accommodating and it made an otherwise tough period so much better.

    Because we shared so widely, a colleague came forward and let me know that he had also been diagnosed and was going through treatment but had chosen not to share with anyone. The things was that before I knew about his diagnosis, I was aware of a lot of people who were angry at him because of how badly he had been performing recently. He never did share with anyone about his diagnosis and as far as I know people still have cold feelings towards him that they don’t have towards me. :(

    That being said, I deeply understand how cancer is a life-changing personal crisis. Do what makes you feel comfortable. I intrinsically needed people to know where we were at and my career going forward was still very important to me. But I fully understand why someone would not want people in their business and treating them like the sick person.

    Lastly, good luck! My husband made it to the other side of treatment although I don’t think we can officially say it’s in remission for another couple of years. We are living life now to the fullest. You’ve got this!

  81. jpicardi*

    I am so sorry you are going through this! I think it is important to understand the culture at your organization before making a decision. I received a diagnosis in July, 2018 of cancer. I waited to tell anyone at work until I knew my full treatment plan which ended up including 14 months of chemotherapy, surgery and 4 weeks of radiation. Once I knew what was coming, I sent an email to all staff, approximately 300 people. My situation is likely very different than yours though! I work at a Christian organization where it is common to ask co-workers for prayers. I hold a high profile job within the organization and people were going to know something was up. I knew I would lose my hair and I had no intention of getting a wig.

    In my email, I included my treatment timeline and told staff that communicating about this was difficult for me, that I didn’t feel up to answering multiple questions. I made a commitment to update them as I had information to share, but that would be infrequent. I then sent email updates after each type of treatment ended, so roughly three more. I communicated more with the people I work directly with, but what I shared was always at my own volition as people respected the fact that I told them it was difficult to communicate.

    This is something you get to decide on and please don”t let anyone pressure you to do it differently than what you want to do! You are dealing with a lot right now and that won’t change for a long time. Be kind to yourself in any small way you can and that includes not feeling pressured to communicate what doesn’t feel comfortable.

    I hope you feel confident in your care team and that you kick the beast!

  82. Book of Iona*

    I went through breast cancer 2 years ago. One of the things I realized almost immediately upon being diagnosed is that you usually only hear that someone had cancer because they died. It is much more rare for someone — esp. a casual acquaintance — to share that they survived cancer, even though there are millions of survivors in the world, and likely dozens of them in your personal circle. Because of this, I felt very alone initially. But once I started being open about my diagnosis, scads of (living! admirable! active!) people I knew started to tell me their own successful survivorship stories. Many of these were colleagues who I didn’t know that well, and many of them had useful, practical advice about tolerating chemo, radiation, etc. Knowing that so many people had successfully beaten it gave me faith that I could, too. For this reason, I try to be as open and vocal as possible about my survivorship, so that anyone in my orbit who is similarly diagnosed knows that there is at least one person they know who came through and is completely fine.

    Best of luck to you during your treatment. There is a veritable world of us pulling for you!

  83. Emily*

    Having been in these shoes, I can completely agree with Alison’s statement about unintended consequences and people treating you like The Sick Person (i.e. looking at you sympathetically, always asking if you are okay, being overtly nice, etc.) And it doesn’t go away. Even after you are done with treatment the “Big C” stays with you like a scarlet letter, “you know she beat CANCER, right?” “you can’t blame her, she just beat CANCER”, “Of course you are going to walk that 5k benefit race to support cancer research, since you obviously know what that feels like”… etc. etc. I didn’t tell anyone other than my boss and HR and I still hold this card very close to my chest, sharing with just the most privileged and trusted because you do get treated differently once people know. Just know, once you ring that bell, it can’t be silenced…

  84. Karen Sester*

    4 years ago, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. I work in health care, but our rehab office is fewer than 20. I let my boss know right away, because I needed to schedule surgery, and they needed to seek coverage.
    My experience:
    I told my boss that she was free to share the information if/when she felt it was needed. She did when a coworker was diagnosed with breast cancer, and by then the shock had worn off, and I knew more about the prognosis, treatment choices and timelines. I could talk about it without crying. I ended up with a cancer buddy, and we are both doing well.

    When it finally came up – either in our office, or the larger facility, I was able to go right to timeline, and prognosis. They took my lead, and we were able to move to different subjects easily.

    You need to know your workplace, and be able to trust those you tell, but it worked well for me to be open and factual. That is harder to do right away, and I so appreciate by boss limiting her conversation.

  85. Serious Pillowfight*

    Late to the game, but I had breast cancer when I was 31 and asked my boss to tell my coworkers during the weekly meeting (which I skipped).

  86. CarChickHadCancer*

    I’m a 36 year old female who went through breast cancer with a mastectomy and chemo last year. I work in car sales, as in a public facing sales role in a male dominated industry that’s notoriously unsentimental and filled with clods.
    They were EXCELLENT to me. There are things that may make this visible for you whether you like it or not. I thought I could slip through in a wig and yeah, no, too itchy. Thought I could slip through in a hat, no, horrible hot flashes where I needed to whip off my hat and my sweater and turned as red as a tomato. Customers, colleagues, everyone will follow your lead so just deciding in advance what YOUR lead is can help a ton. What I mean:
    For customers- yeah, I’m mid cancer treatment but pretending I’m not so if we can pretend Im not (whatever symptoms I was showing at the time) it would mean the world to me.
    For distant colleagues- I appreciate your care and all I need from you is (good gossip, good jokes)… etc.
    I had my mental list of what my needs were for what group and what my lead looked like. Helped a TON. Good luck and best wishes for wellness to anyone stumbling across this in the thick of things.

  87. LT*

    I went through this myself. For your actual question, just seconding what everyone else has said. Tell as much to whomever you’re comfortable with. If you’re not comfortable, or feel like people might judge you for some reason, you’re under no obligation to go beyond “I’m having some health issues.”
    Secondly, if your company has short term disability – USE IT!!! I didn’t use it & I got screwed at review time because i didn’t meet my billable goals. I used sick leave liberally, but that’s not the same as STD – you at least have a chance of your goals getting pro-rated down for time you’re off work.

  88. Shay*

    LW#3 is wrongly assuming that all concussions are created equal and they are not. An attempt to say, “I bounced back and got right back to work in two weeks,” will offend those with person experience with concussions and reflect negatively. LW#3 was quite fortunate that this concussion was seemingly quite mild and enabled a faster return to regular activities.

  89. Mm*

    I hope OP sees this, and to everyone who is dealing with a similar issue: Triage Cancer is a non- profit that provides education and resources for people who were diagnosed with cancer and for dealing with the legal issues that might be affected by it – and employment is certainly one of them.

  90. Melissa*

    OP, best wishes to you. A great attitude is half the battle. Me? At my job when I was diagnosed with Stage 3, Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, I had been there for a year by the time I got my news. Sounds like you have been at your job for years as well. So, I was visibly having a lump on my neck and everyone saw it. A month later, after I started chemo, my hair started falling out. So it was obvious.

    I would tell someone that hasn’t been at a job for at least that long and after their treatment is over, to just keep it to themselves. After our department had layoffs at my original job, I was soon looking for other employment, which I found. Another woman there had been there for years and she was treated totally different than me. I feel like they may have seen me as a medical liability as some companies do sadly.

    I didn’t have the support of my original coworkers that went through the process with me. Just my take.

  91. Jenny Grace*

    I have stage 4 cancer and it’s not great (I mean, prognosis-wise). I don’t look visibly ill CANCER PATIENT though (I have my hair), so I have had some latitude about how I share at work. Right now work is a cancer free haven for me, where I just get to be myself and think about work things and use my work brain. My boss knows, HR knows, some other people know, but they also know that I don’t really want to talk about it. Like, it’s not a secret, but I don’t want any of my coworkers to give me a meaningful hug. So far it’s gone my way. Because I don’t want to talk about it at all really, I don’t have a point person for updates. I talk to my boss about work/leave.

  92. writersam*

    I had my second and third cancer diagnoses last year and told my boss about it initially. Then, when I knew I’d have to be out of the office at some point for surgery (and had already been in and out of the office for appointments), I sent around an email explaining what was going on and making light of it a little. I’ll share with you what I wrote – it worked for me because we are a fairly small office of around 15 people, and though I got some sweet replies to the email, only my close work friends really spoke to me about my illness, which was fine with me – everyone else pretty much treated me normally. Here’s what I wrote – the tone may not be for everybody, but I was happy that this email gave me control over the way I wanted to frame things. I’m happy for anyone to take/amend this for their own use:

    Subject: Urgent: I am not adopting a baby goat

    Hi all,

    Just a quick note because I’m not sure how much everyone knows about me being randomly out of the office recently. I wish I could say it’s because I’ve adopted a baby goat and it needs looking after, or Drake is on tour and as we’re close friends he asked me to be his roadie, but the reality is much more mundane.

    As some (many? all?!) of you know I have cancer (again, what a bore) which isn’t ideal to say the least. So I may continue to be in and out for the foreseeable future. Or out on a longer term basis at some point in the future. Who knows? It’s a magical mystery! Anyway, I’m getting it all sorted out (I should hope), and since I’ve done it before back in 2010, fairly sure everything’s going to work out fine in the end.

    I just wanted to make sure it’s out in the open so we can all tease me for being a part-timer and/or mock cancer accordingly, as it rightly deserves.

    Thanks for your understanding!


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