my coworker told me he’s hiding a terminal illness

A reader writes:

I feel odd even writing this email. But I am at a loss for what to do with this information. I feel horrible talking to people about it, so I don’t but I HAVE to get this off my chest.

About a month before I left my small team (of six) for maternity leave, a colleague, who I consider myself to have a good relationship with, tried calling me for an unscheduled chat. At the moment I couldn’t jump on the call, so I simply offered to chat via chat. He responded: “just don’t share with [our manager] or team, because I don’t know how to handle yet, have a terminal illness.”

I was stunned, stopped what I was doing and offered to jump on the phone with him. He said, “It’s okay, I just wanted to share with you. I’ll be fully committed to work, but that’s the news I wanted to share with you.”

After that, when we did eventually connect face to face on a call, we both cried as he told me he had stomach cancer. That they caught it early and that he would have a surgery in the coming weeks to get the tumor removed. He told me he wasn’t telling anyone except me — not his family, our manager, anyone. If I’m being honest, it sat heavier with me than my pending c-section to deliver my baby. I appreciated that he values our relationship that much … but man, I did not want to be carrying that weight along with my soon-to-be-a-mom weight.

Our relationship definitely changed. He started missing calls and slowing down with work, and I chalked it up to doctor appointments or illness. I confided in my husband and sisters who all said, “Say prayers for him because on top of this illness, it’s sad he doesn’t have a community to turn to.” In our final meetings before I went on maternity leave, I encouraged him to tell our manager — he is tremendously understanding and supportive and would no doubt have given great compassion to this colleague. He said he would think about it.

After I gave birth to my daughter, I texted him a few times to check in and see how he was doing. He never responded until finally one day he messaged me saying he’d had the surgery, it was successful, and they removed the tumor.

Two months later, I returned to work. At this point, it had been about six months since he told me he had the illness and two months since having the tumor removed. I expected to get on my team calls and see someone gaunt, perhaps with no hair, or perhaps not even there as he battled this disease. I got on and it was like nothing had happened. He looked the exact same. He was going into the office despite Covid. He was drinking sodas and milkshakes on our calls. Literally, nothing changed about him physically, which in my experience with people who have cancer (my dad, family friends, etc.) … you look sick.

When we finally had our first chat as I reentered the workforce, he told me he was in remission and everything was great and he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I asked how long he took off for the surgery and he told “a long weekend.” He said recovery really wasn’t bad. Given that I also just recovered from abdominal surgery, I was a little surprised.

Why I struggle is this: the two people I know who had stomach cancer died … and it was awful to witness. I understand terminal to mean focusing on quality of life from diagnosis onward, not remission. I’ve also had a colleague pass away when absolutely no one was expecting it — it was also awful. If that happened and I had this knowledge that my colleague was ill, I would feel horrible.

What also makes this extremely hard now: he’s not great to work with. I find myself getting more and more frustrated working with him purely because of his performance as a teammate — it’s terrible. He is constantly late on things, he deflects work to other people (aka, me), he is slowing the team down. I have an amazing relationship with my manager and, under normal circumstances, would try to find a constructive way to bring this up. But I feel as though doing that is dismissing what my colleague is going through.

I told my husband and sister that he’s in remission and they both said that’s great! Move on from this. My mom asked how he was doing and I told her the situation … she said she wouldn’t trust him.

I feel like a horrible person. Why can’t I just believe and be happy for my colleague? Why can’t I just respect how he wants to navigate this? Mostly, I want him to feel supported and held up by love, prayers, strength, compassion, and resources that my company has available (we are a global company with amazing benefits). But, terminal illness aside, I also want a colleague who pulls his weight, helps lift the team up and values work relationships.

I’ve considered bringing up my colleague’s performance with my manager. In some ways, I guess I could just do it as I would regardless of if he told me this news. But that doesn’t feel fair if he does in fact need concession and support because he is battling a disease.


There’s a lot going on here!

The core issue is that you’re sympathetic to a sick colleague who’s dropping balls at work that are affecting you, and you’re hesitant to address it because you want to be sensitive to what he’s going through. At the same time, some of the details aren’t adding up to you — and that’s making you uncertain about what’s going on. Throw in the secrecy, and no wonder you’re feeling overwhelmed and conflicted.

For what it’s worth, some of what’s making you question your coworker probably doesn’t need to: not everyone who has cancer has chemo or looks sick, especially if they caught it early. I know he said his was terminal — but who knows, maybe that was his own panicked interpretation rather than a doctor’s assessment. I agree that “a long weekend” for recovery from stomach surgery seems surprising, but a lot the rest of it isn’t. And maybe he’s downplaying how long the recovery actually was for his own reasons.

The good news is, though, is that you don’t need to figure out whether to trust him or not. What’s going on with his health isn’t something you need to sort out.

What is yours to address is the way his work habits are impacting you. So first and foremost, are his work habits affecting your job? If not — if it’s more that it’s frustrating to watch someone dropping balls and slowing down the team, but it doesn’t impact your work — then there’s more good news: you don’t need to do anything about it. It’s your manager’s to handle if she chooses to. I know that normally you might raise it with your manager anyway, particularly if you’re in a senior or influential role and can see it affecting others or your team as a whole, but in this case where you’re conflicted about whether or not you should, you can just … not. It’s your manager’s job to spot it and address it, and you don’t need to make it your burden.

But if it is impacting your work, that’s a different situation. In that case, would you feel comfortable talking to your coworker directly rather than starting with your manager? You could ask how he’s doing, acknowledge that he’s had a stressful year and a lot to juggle outside of work, and then say you’ve been struggling with whether to talk to him about the impact his work has been having on your ability to do your own job. You could say you’d normally talk to your boss about how to manage the situation, but that you didn’t want to do that if you could avoid it.

Who knows what will come of that. It might nudge him into doing things differently, if he can. If nothing else, it could be useful for him to realize that whatever’s going on in his work is more visible than he realized. But it also might accomplish nothing. You won’t know until you try, though. And if nothing changes and you end up talking to your boss about the impact on your own work, you won’t be blindsiding your colleague.

To be clear, this probably won’t be a fully satisfying solution! This is a strange situation with a lot of pieces to it … but the more you can streamline it to just the pieces that you really need to act on and make peace with the rest being outside the scope of anything you need to settle in any way, the easier it’s likely to be.

Read an update to this letter

{ 358 comments… read them below }

  1. Chairman of the Bored*

    Unless something changes I think I would do my best to forget that he ever told me that and try to act as though it never happened.

    Either he had terminal-but-also-not-a-big-deal (?) cancer or some serious problem in his brain/life that caused him to falsely claim that this was the case. Either way, I’m just going to go about my business and address actual work issues as they arise. I don’t need to fix this guy or figure him out, I just need to get work done.

    If he asks me to be involved in his Serious Business in the future I would definitely decline.

    1. Lab Boss*

      +1. It sounds like LW wants to make allowances due to his illness, which is understandable and a very kind impulse! But it also sounds like the coworker never actually asked for allowances, and is now saying that he’s in remission and fine and literally doesn’t want to talk about it. To me, that means LW is clear to handle the issues however she’d have handled them if he’d never mentioned any illness. Even if we assume he was telling absolutely 100% truth, you don’t continue giving someone extra allowances forever because at one point they were struggling.

      1. MusicWithRocksIn*

        Yes – if he says he is fine and doesn’t need time off – treat him like he’s fine and doesn’t need time off. Having someone (secretly so no one knows I’m sick, but I’m fine actually) take on extra work for you isn’t good or fair. If he needs extra allowances he needs to talk to his manager about it and not just expect his coworkers to pick up his work but also keep a secret.

      2. WantonSeedStitch*

        This, absolutely. If he comes back and says, “hey, I can’t do X because I’m sick, why did you tell Manager that I wasn’t doing X when you know I’m SICK?” LW can say, “I’m sorry you’re not well and can’t do it, but I don’t have the ability to pick it up. Why don’t you talk to Manager and see if they can help you with an accommodation?” If he really is sick and can’t perform to standard due to illness, he NEEDS to talk to his manager about that and work out some accommodations. Maybe they can spread the work around more, or find an alternate way of handling things that doesn’t place the entire burden on LW. (Like others here, though, I do feel like the coworker is dealing with this situation in a way that is Very Odd, and it makes me feel a little suspicious.)

      3. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        This is great advice. You sound like a very kind, compassionate person, OP, so my suspicion is that you generally handle these types of conversations pretty well. So bring things up how you normally would have and see how it goes. Take him at his word that things are currently OK. You can always adjust your approach as you go if you learn new things or if his health situation changes.

        It’s wonderful that you’re thinking of him and trying to create a situation where he is supported. However, it’s not your job to do a bunch of work to smooth the way for him in all aspects of his work life. If he needs accommodation or support, he has a responsibility to ask for them.

    2. NW Mossy*

      This is it.

      When people behave in ways we don’t understand, we crave an explanation – a logical path that shows how we got from There to Here that fits tidily together. But real, non-fictional people don’t always make their decisions this way, so searching for the cause-and-effect thread can leave us more confused and frustrated.

      His choices are his, not yours. Being invited into someone else’s situation doesn’t mean you have to stay for tea. Let his life be an unsolved mystery, and pull back to a level of interaction that’s professional but arms’-length.

    3. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      or some serious problem in his brain/life that caused him to falsely claim that this was the case

      I almost always think the best of people, but I have to admit that this possibility crossed my mind as well.

      Either way, he has asked LW to act as though he never told her about the diagnosis/surgery etc in front of other people, so that’s her best option, as you and Alison describe.

      1. Suz*

        I doubt he deliberately falsified it. A lot of people will assume a cancer diagnosis is terminal even if their physicians say they have a good prognosis

        1. Sbbbbbb*

          If this website has taught me anything… people make up and say inaccurate things all the time for all kinds of reasons unknown to others! So while it’s not the only possibility, it’s definitely A Possibility. Fortunately Allison’s advise should be effective either way.

        2. Pippa K*

          Long ago a student (university) told me she had stomach cancer and asked me not to tell anyone, since she wanted to live as normally as possible among her peers. Of course I gave her the workload accommodations she asked for, extended deadlines, missing an occasional assignment, etc. Two years later we all learned that she’d been using the “stomach cancer, don’t tell anyone” story with a lot of her professors but had never been ill. It was just her strategy for manipulating her workload. She was dismissed from the university. Hadn’t thought about her for years, but I hope she’s matured. And that she doesn’t believe in karma.

          1. BoredAmoeba*

            This was my thought. That’s he’s told a similar story to several key people he knows would be respectful of the info so he gets free passes and they are less likely to call him out. The whole “I don’t want anyone including friends and family to know” means that the person he told isn’t even going to reach out to the family.

          2. PT*

            I have a friend who had a close friend from high school fake cancer when we were young adults, too. Their high school friend group went as far as some of them relocating to their hometown from the cities they’d been living in: finding new jobs, uprooting partners, getting new apartments. After some time things weren’t adding up and it turned out the friend was lying about the diagnosis because they were in a mental health crisis that was equally sad and concerning.

            1. Divergent*

              Yes, using a physical illness as a stand-in for more stigmatized and less understood or properly diagnosed mental illness can be tempting in some cases.

          3. Slow Gin Lizz*

            My cousin was married to a woman who lied to him about having cancer. Like, ok, lying about having cancer is a very low and awful thing to do but lying to your spouse about it? How even did she expect that he wouldn’t find out she was lying?? Spoiler: he found out, she is now his ex-wife.

            So anyway, my point is that people do lie (and apparently many people!) about having cancer. That said, OP, you can certainly proceed as you would if he hadn’t told you anything about being sick and not feel too badly about it, because if he’d wanted special treatment he probably would have told more people than just you.

            My gut, however, tells me that he is not being truthful. Sad.

          4. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

            After reading your story, I think LW should tell her boss what happened. If the coworker did lie about it, she might not have been the only recipient. Her boss is in a better position to detect it being a pattern.

          5. Western Rover*

            Maybe that’s why the community college I taught at told me that if a student needed accommodations to refer them to a central department rather than handle it by myself. At the time I assumed this would most likely come up in the case of a permanent disability, but now I see how this would also have been helpful for a case like Pippa K’s student.

          6. Making It Up*

            Most people who say that they are ill really, truly are. My former stepdaughter lied about having brain cancer and had half of the school convinced it was true. Her father found out when one too many people made the noises of concern at him about how hard it must be for her. It was a cry for help for her mental health; her parents’ divorce was not an amicable one and she was very much put in the middle of it all by her family members. It was really sad. (Happened before I came on the scene in that family, heard about it later.) She never really got the help she needed before I left the family, and it’s too bad.

          7. DrRat*

            I worked in the field of HIV for many years and I saw both sides of the coin. So, yes, I saw people who falsely claimed they were HIV+ to get services or favors. For instance, a chronic drug addict who had failed out of numerous rehab programs and whose parents had said they would never allow him to move home – they let him move in when he claimed to have HIV, then kicked his butt out when they found out he was lying about it. But I can also think of at least one patient who had never told ANYONE outside our medical office that he was HIV+.

            My gut suspicion is that he’s lying but as people have pointed out, it is possible to move forward workwise without ever knowing.

        3. generic_username*

          I don’t know if it’s productive for OP to speculate about whether he falsified it, but it could certainly be the case. It certainly isn’t unheard of. This immediately made me think of the author AJ Finn/Dan Mallory and the drama around him lying about having cancer.

        4. Ari*

          And some people just don’t know what words mean…someone in my local mom group posted about her father having a “fatal heart attack” and needing to drive to a different state to assist him with his recovery. If he’s recovering it wasn’t fatal! He may literally not know what “terminal” means.

          1. Jillian*

            This was my first thought too. Also, when I was diagnosed (7 years ago, I’m fine), it FELT terminal to me. Within a week I’d made a will, cleaned out my closet and prepared to die. It can be a horrible, panicky time.

          2. Just an autistic redhead*

            Yeah – of course all the possibilities people are mentioning, but this one too. He might have somehow internalized “I have cancer” + “cancer is a terminal illness” = “I have a terminal illness” without fully thinking it through.

          3. Amaranth*

            +1 He might have built it up in his head as terminal and major surgery and they really did a less invasive procedure or biopsy and now he’s embarrassed to revisit his panic.
            It sounds like LW has already made concessions and needs to address it directly – if coworker says its not a big deal, take him at his word and say ‘oh good, glad you’ve recovered, now lets talk about this work issue.’ Then, if they come back with health-related excuses or don’t improve over the next couple of weeks, I’d talk to the manager.

        5. Bird Lady*

          I, too, had a co-worker who said she had stomach cancer but showed no symptoms, took no time off for appointments, and said she wouldn’t get chemo because she was “selfish” for not wanting to lose her hair. At the time, our other colleagues and our boss strongly suspected her of lying, but no one was going to be the one to try to call her out.

          1. tessa*

            Going through something similar with a coworker right now. Some things about her claim/situation just don’t add up.

        6. Anonymous4*

          A lot of people will assume a cancer diagnosis is terminal —

          Oh, yes, indeed! I’ve never had one of those diagnoses (yet) but I can guarantee that “massively freaking out” would be my first step. I know that we have all these cool new techniques and meds and whatnot, but “omigod I’m gonna die” would be so close in the forefront of my brain that I couldn’t keep from blurting it out.

          It could also be that the tumor (or tumors) were of the size that he could have laparoscopic surgery — or that he had a targeting implant embedded in the tumor through laparoscopy — and that he didn’t need more than a long weekend to recover enough to return to work. (I had a friend who had targeted radiation, and it worked out very well for her.)

          1. Azure Jane Lunatic*

            I went through laparoscopic surgery for uterine cancer (and targeted radiation), and while I was up and about and doing things within a long weekend of the operation, I was also extremely slow and tired for a couple weeks. And the radiation was exhausting even though it was only 3 sessions of (iirc) 5gy. But if he was distracted and dropping balls before the procedure, the post-surgical exhaustion could have been chalked up to more of the same of whatever everyone else thought was going on from pre-surgery. Especially from the perspective of working at home, where a half-hour unscheduled nap might look like a half-hour of head-down work, especially if he noticed that he was getting tired and flipped his status to DND.

            My weight did drop pre-surgery. I’m not sure how much can be attributed to cancer trying to take over the world and how much was due to other medical things going on at the same time (including medication for the previously undiagnosed ADHD). After the cancer was removed, I started slowly gaining it back.

            Two months after surgery I was in good health and high spirits; I had been terrified I was going to die (less from cancer; I didn’t realize I had it going in, more from surgery/complications) and the removal of that fear left me ebullient.

        7. ---*

          I just don’t think this is true at all. As someone whose close relative has gone through two cancers, I have seen firsthand that patients cling to hope, not the opposite. They assume there’s a way, not the other way round.

          If this person heard his doctor say, “we caught it early, you’ll be fine,” and interpreted that as meaning “terminal” (which is doubtful), then the problem isn’t the cancer.

          1. Holly*

            Some patients may be optimists, but people vary.
            (My relatives go straight to ‘doom’ setting.)

            1. Shhh*

              Yep. My mom had breast cancer and my grandma is currently going through treatment for multiple myeloma. They are polar opposites in terms of optimism-pessimism – they received essentially the same prognosis (good news) and had completely different reactions.

            2. LK*

              This exactly. Heck, I didn’t find out I’d had cancer until several weeks after the surgery that left me cancer-free (the biopsy results surprised even my surgeon who thought my tumour was benign), and I’m still struggling to really believe I’m not going to die. Cancer’s a scary thing. Everyone’s going to react differently.

          2. BritChickaaa*

            “I just don’t think this is true at all. As someone whose close relative has gone through two cancers, I have seen firsthand that patients cling to hope, not the opposite. They assume there’s a way, not the other way round.”

            Wow, it’s almost like people with cancer aren’t actual human beings with their own individual emotional responses to things!

            They have cancer, they’re not the Borg.

            1. DrRat*

              +2 : one point for the message that we don’t all react the same way, and one for the Borg reference!

          3. Boof*

            Yes, there are several stomach neoplasia that often have a great prognosis with surgery alone (ie GIST) but it’s easy (common rally) to shut down after getting some really scary news and misunderstand it

          4. Polecat*

            How very unhelpful for you to universalize the experience of a single person you know. I am a metastatic cancer patient and I know many other metastatic cancer patients. You, as a non-patient, stating unequivocally that patients behave in a certain way, that is not acceptable. Don’t talk about what you haven’t experienced yourself with such certainty. It’s offensive to those of us who have experienced it.

      2. DataGirl*

        The whole thing feels very suspicious. My daughter has abdominal surgery coming up and the recovery time is usually 6-8 weeks. Perhaps this tumor was so small they could remove it laparoscopically, but even then recovery time is usually 1-2 weeks. I know speculating if he made the whole thing up is counter productive so I won’t harp on it, but given that he told LW he’s fine now, I’d say she should proceed exactly thus. Bring up any issues that impact the work with the manager, keeping it simple, focused on the work not getting done, without any commentary on personal matters that might be affecting the work.

        1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

          Eh, I had pretty major abdominal surgery last year on a Friday. They said 8-12 weeks to recover. That Monday I was feeling so good that I thought going running before work (I didn’t take time) was a brilliant plan. Running was a bit more than my stitches could handle, but beyond that, for some reason, the recovery was NBD for me. I ended up canceling my time off and was back at work that Monday. Bodies are weird

          1. KoiFeeder*

            While my gallbladder removal was just laparoscopic, I had just about the same reaction. By day three I was ready to start doing things again. There’s plenty of instances where whatever was going on was actually draining more from your body than the recovery from surgery would.

          2. Free now (and forever)*

            That’s really weird. My colon perforated on December 2,2020. I finally ended up having emergency surgery on December 9th. This included a temporary colostomy. Aa you can imagine, I was in septic shock. I spent 16 days in the hospital and more than two months in bed. It wasn’t until March 4th that I suddenly got up and felt like a semi-normal person. On the other hand, my revision surgery was robotic. The next day I walked 5 miles around the hospital floor. My cunning plan worked and my surgeon sent me home that evening.

        2. NicoleT*

          Having had my gallbladder out laparoscopically, my experience was that it was both NBD and also a BIG deal. NBD in that I only had a few small incisions, but BIG deal in that it still hurt to bend over at the waist about 4 weeks later. I would feel okay, try to do something new/old, and then regret it later. My surgeon also said he had one patient who went back to work (she was a special needs teacher) the next day, but he wouldn’t recommend it.

          I guess everyone recovers differently, but still.

          1. Free now (and forever)*

            I rode my exercise bike the day after. Of course, I held a pillow against my midriff while I did so, but I was in my thirties then and all things were possible.

        3. Anon Supervisor*

          I had major abdominal surgery and couldn’t stand up straight for a week and it took over a month for the incision to feel ok. Granted, the incision was about 6 inches. Eating was normal except I was advised to eat easy to digest things (although I didn’t have surgery on my stomach) for about a month.

        4. Uranus Wars*

          I think this is very dependent on the person. My friend had a partial hysterectomy on a Thursday and ran 1 mile the next day and was up to 5 miles by the next weekend.

          1. More anon today*

            Yeah, I think there’s a range; I’m somewhere in between the experiences others have described here. I had a laparoscopic hysterectomy and I probably could have returned to a desk job after a very long weekend, though I wouldn’t have wanted to. I think I was still moving a bit carefully for another week or so and people probably could have told something was off. But I could have done it if I felt it was necessary. Since I was unemployed at the time it wasn’t an issue. My current job in retail, I probably would have wanted a month. In fact I started it about six weeks after that surgery and it was fine. I think I had lifting restrictions that may have lasted six weeks anyway, which, again, would have been okay for a desk job, retail cashier not so much.

          2. DataGirl*

            I find it heartening to hear people have different experiences. My daughter is a waitress so I do think her time off will be longer, due to restrictions lifting things. But I’m glad to hear it’s possible to recover quicker.

          3. WS*

            Yes, my friend was all ready to go straight back to work a week after planned surgery because her sister had had the exact same partial hysterectomy a year earlier and it was easy and a quick recovery (and the same hospital and same surgeon). But unfortunately for my friend, it did not work out that way and she ended up having to take 4 weeks off.

      3. Smithy*

        I had melanoma and the initial diagnosis/surgery process came with a huge amount of stress and anxiety that I would then notice on my follow-on check-ups.

        My melanoma was treated by a very straightforward surgery with local anesthesia and nothing else. The anxiety however that came with it from myself, my friends, my family was far far less straightforward. I say this because it’s possible to give a generous while medically uneducated read of what this man did while also assuming his follow-up statements to be true and his work terrible and in need of correction.

        I get that for some it may feel better to assume he was being nefarious or looking for a way to excuse poor work – but he might have been genuinely scared, said things that felt true at the time (despite not being the case), and now is just trying to walk it back. And separately he’s poor at work.

        1. Anon for this*

          Yes this. And if he did overreact with the initial diagnosis, he’s probably more than a bit embarrassed about it, which would explain the “let us never speak of this, moving on” attitude equally well.

          It’s rare but sometimes diagnoses are wrong. A relative of mine, who happens to be a doctor, was told after initial tests that they had a pituitary tumor. Further investigation found no tumor at all. They had freaked out more than a little in the interim.

          Whether it’s true, whether it’s error, overreaction or fabrication, I think Alison’s advice is good.

          1. Caroline Bowman*

            Not so rare for diagnoses to not be wrong exactly, but the severity / prognosis to be very different once surgery / further investigation is carried out. I have a friend who at a very young age got prostate cancer as a hereditary thing. It had apparently spread into his bones (according to the x-rays and other metrics) and the situation was not definitely terminal, but very much ”do you have a will?”.

            It turns out that whilst he DID have prostate cancer that needed immediate surgery and some fairly miserable follow-up therapy, (radiation rather than chemo), there was no spread into his bones, it was localised and he is now just about 5 years cancer free. Obviously it could return, he has to remain vigilant, but the prognosis, made in very good faith and in honesty, turned out to be less severe than initially thought.

            It might be – and I do hope this is so – that the OP’s colleague had a similar thing happen.

            1. alienor*

              The same thing happened to my father-in-law–he had prostate cancer and was told it had spread to his bones, but after some time of thinking he was about to die, he got a different doctor and found out that it hadn’t. That was more than 15 years ago and he turned 80 recently, so it’s very likely that whatever he ultimately dies from, it won’t be that.

            2. Boof*

              Yes it can be hard to know up front if a bone “spot” or two are due to prostate cancer vs something else / benign. Arg!

        2. It's greased lightening*

          I am a former oncology nurse and have had a few abdominal surgeries; I think his story could very well be true. The immediate shock of a diagnosis cannot be overstated; and yes, people do jump to worse case and often feel very protective of family and don’t want to disclose to them. I could absolutely see a person reaching out to a work friend — someone who could empathize and comfort, but also someone who would not be personally devestated by the news. Laproscopic through the abdominal wall or even via scope (think a scope going down the esophagus and into the stomach through the mouth) would not be terribly invasive. Gastric tubes and such are placed with very little recovery time through an incision through the abdominal wall, after all. I think he very well has had cancer. And this likely could contribute to his reduced performance, but … that doesn’t mean that it need not be addressed. I would do exactly as Alison has suggested.

          1. KoiFeeder*

            He may have chosen not to undergo any radiation treatments or chemotherapy at all- at least one of my relatives with breast cancer chose to just have surgical treatment because she wanted to have children later on and was worried that chemotherapy might prevent that (this was 40 years ago- the available options for cancer treatment are almost certainly different today). If that was his choice, for whatever reason he might have chosen to do so, that probably would impact his prognosis even after the surgery.

    4. HigherEdAdminista*

      I think this is excellent advice. Something is definitely amiss here, and I honestly would be hesitant to believe I was being told the truth by this colleague. However, if there is nothing provable, I would put some distance between myself and him, and have the same expectations for him I would have for any other colleague. If he attempted to confide in me again, I would warn him that I felt it was a conflict of interest and that I could not be party to personal revelations like this without speaking with my manager about how to handle them.

    5. Aggretsuko*

      Yeah, at this point, whether or not he’s lying (which, yeah, I kinda smell some rats here at this point), your best move is to pretend like it never happened.

    6. Drago Cucina*

      Having had a someone lie and tell me she had stomach cancer I’m now skeptical. It turned out that lie was the tip of a very big brain/life iceberg that impacted a lot of people in our community. She was being given donations by churches she didn’t belong to (but never mentioned it at her church). Plus some illegal shadiness that almost got her sent to prison.

      Addressing the work issues independently from this is the best advice.

    7. Hummer on the Hill*

      I dunno. I think this guy was lying for some reason. We’ve seen letters here where this has been the case. I mean “a long weekend” for stomach surgery? Please! But, outside of that impression, not her circus, not her monkeys, unless of course the OP’s work products are directly affected. I like Alison’s approach of giving him the benefit of the doubt if indeed it was true.

      1. Anonymous4*

        As I said above, perhaps the tumor(s) were small enough that they could be removed via laparoscopic surgery, or it very well could be that targeting implants for highly focused radiation treatment were inserted. Some people need to be opened up, and that’s a long time to heal. Bandaid surgery? Not so much.

      2. JSPA*

        I recovered in 2 days from one abdominal surgery, 5 days from another. It’s even possible to do it through the throat, which can drop recovery time to something comparable to a colonoscopy (day- to- recover- from- anesthesia) in which they also pick off potentially cancerous and pre-cancerous polyps.

        If OP feels something is fishy, they should stick with that as a sensation, rather than trying to justify it with facts- that- are- not- facts. The guy could well be lying. (He is, at best,as sloppy in his medical understanding as in his work.) But there is nothing in the description to confirm or refute.

        In OP’s position, I’d reference the person “mentioning a health issue to be kept private,” and having since stated the issue was resolved, which is why you’re tentatively broaching the topic of being saddled with extra work. Mention that you’d be willing to keep picking up some slack (in a limited way) if there is an official reason, request or directive… but absent that, you’d like to make sure you’re not picking up slack just for someone’s random convenience.

    8. JM60*

      Either he had terminal-but-also-not-a-big-deal (?) cancer

      I would assume that he meant potentially terminal cancer. The thing about cancer is some cancers could end up not being too big of a problem to deal with if caught early and all cancer is excised by the surgeon, but any cancer missed by the surgeon could potentially kill.

    9. SleepyKitten*

      Honestly the amount of blokes* who have told me they’re definitely going to die but also not to worry and definitely not to do anything about it…. people just don’t see the contradictions in what they’re saying because they’re too close. Or they know they’re giving mixed messages but can’t let anyone do anything that would require giving up control or exposing their soft spots.

      It’s not necessarily suspicious, is what I’m getting at. But that doesn’t mean you have to play along, if you need to say “tell our manager or I will”, or “either stop talking about this to me or let me help” then do it.

      *Not just blokes TBF but it is mostly men

      1. Not So NewReader*

        So. Very. Much. Agree.

        OP, you do not have to keep secrets that are unreasonable to keep. I’d suggest going back in on this and saying, “We will never do this again. If you ask me to keep a secret of this magnitude, know right now, that I refuse to do that.”

        In the moment it’s a bit easier to nip it before you know the nature of the secret.
        I have said things such as:
        “I have an obligation to this company and the people in it. I cannot keep something a secret just because someone asked me to. I am unwilling to jeopardize my job for someone else. But I am most willing to help anyone who is open and forthright about their settings and limitations.”

        [In talking to a subordinate] “Think before you tell me something. If that thing turns out to be reportable I will report it. As it stands right now, I don’t know what that thing is. If you would like me to go with you to talk to someone I will.” (And some subordinates had things to say that were off the charts difficult to hear and deal with.)

        I have also gone with, “If you can’t tell everyone then you most certainly cannot tell ME.” This is for when I have to draw that hard and fast line.

        For the most part, people who want help agree to allowing others in a position of needing-to-know into the conversation. And for the most part very few people have been angry with me for refusing to keep their secret. People who want help act differently than this guy did. I am not saying he was lying- I am saying he wanted to exclude any form of help.

    10. BritChickaaa*

      It sounds like what LW is really trying to say is, “My co-worker with cancer doesn’t look exactly the way I – in my extremely limited knowledge of cancer – thinks a cancer patient should look, so I’m going to write a letter implying he’s faking cancer .”

      Zillions of people with cancer “don’t look sick” and it’s ignorant, offensive and dangerous to suggest otherwise. By spreading these falsehoods about cancer, LW is making life harder for every single person who has cancer who doesn’t look “the right way.”

      The real issues – failing to do work, and asking LW to keep secrets – are legit but all the ramblings about monitoring his diet (honestly super weird, and clearly LW knows nothing about cancer) are irrelevant and intrusive.

      Iirc Alison has handled the “I think my co-worker is faking cancer” question before. But if the co-worker is now saying he’s in remission, and not using cancer for special accommodations, it’s really not relevant.

      1. tessa*

        Not really. Co-worker said nothing about having extremely limited knowledge of cancer, and, in fact, mentions she has had relatives and a co-worker die of cancer.

        Also, to say LW “clearly knows nothing about cancer” is just spot on rude and condescending.

        1. pancakes*

          I don’t agree. The letter writer seems to have found it meaningful that this guy didn’t lose his hair, which numerous people have pointed out that not all cancer patients do, and that he “was drinking sodas and milkshakes on our calls,” as if he simply must’ve been advised not to by his doctor. It isn’t flattering to the letter writer to point out that their knowledge of cancer seems rather limited and rigid, but that doesn’t make it rude to say so.

    11. quill*

      Yes. It’s always possible that he heard “stomach cancer” and assumed it was terminal when it was, for random example, a tumor in/on his stomach that was much less of a concern.

      It’s also possible that he always knew it was a more manageable type of cancer and panicked at the OP, and then never figured out how to walk it back.

      Neither of which really changes that OP should concentrate on his work output and if the previous closeness has fizzled… that’s probably for the best.

    12. Alice's Rabbit*

      Or his doctor gave him the odds, which aren’t great (stomach cancer is a tough one) and told him to get his affairs in order, so he rightfully assumed it could be terminal. But then he beat the odds.
      I’ve had both a c-section and laproscopic surgery before. Despite both being abdominal surgeries, they were not comparable in the slightest! The c-section took months to recover from. It was 2 weeks before I could sleep in a normal bed, because trying to get off a flat surface nearly tore my stitches. Everything hurt, and I couldn’t pick up anything heavier than my baby.
      Laproscopic repair of my stomach, however, was nothing like that at all. I had 5 tiny incisions scattered around my abdomen, each less that an inch long. I was sleeping in my own bed that same night, and off the painkillers 2 days later. My gut was still sore, and I had to move gingerly for a week or so, and avoid heavy lifting or serious workouts for a couple weeks. And I had to eat soft, easily digested, low-acid foods until the staples dissolved. But that was it. I had surgery on Thursday and was back to work on Monday. I just brought toast for lunch, instead of a heartier meal, until my stomach healed up.
      I think OP is suffering from a problem lots of us do, where we assume that our experience with X translates to understanding Y. But it really doesn’t. C-sections are nothing like surgery for stomach cancer. And though OP has lost others to stomach cancer in the past, there are several different kinds, and different patients respond differently to the various treatments. This coworker might not have even had much chemo. My grandmother’s esophageal cancer was treated with surgery and localized radiation; she never lost a hair, and has been in remission for 23 years. I also know people who’ve died of esophageal cancer, and looked like stereotypical cancer patients while they battled that disease. Grandmother still had cancer; I drove her to and from her treatments, and had several long talks with her team about her prognosis.
      So just because his surgery didn’t require a long recovery and he is now in remission, doesn’t mean he lied or even exaggerated earlier.

  2. Raven*

    Yeah, there is a lot here.

    I guess one thing I don’t get (and frankly, I’ve never understood with people) is why you felt you NEEDED to talk to someone about this. Its his illness to disclose or not, but you seem to want to discuss this with every single person in your life, which is a bit strange to me. Your husband? Ok. But after that, your mom and sisters? it seems a bit much.

    To your work issue, I agree with Alison. Figure out if this actually affects you or not. If not, leave it alone. If so, talk to him first. Either way though, disclosing his illness is definitely not your place. Your manager gets paid to manage, you don’t need to do that

    1. ThatGirl*

      It might not be how YOU would handle it, but I can see it – she has a lot going on and feels like this big weight got dumped on her, and she can’t talk about it with her coworkers. Some people are external processors like that.

      1. MistOrMister*

        That was my thinking here. Sometimes a person needs to talk to other people in order to figure out what is going on. We don’t exist on a vacuum!! And unless OP is giving the coworker’s name and information to everyone she discusses this with, I don’t see the problem.

      2. MigraineMonth*

        I am an “external processor” who has a need to vent and commiserate with others. This has also gotten me in trouble in the past. If I need to vent, I try to do it with my therapist.

    2. Purt's Peas*

      I don’t think it’s strange–it’s something OP needed support on, and reached out appropriately to their support network. I’ve had a coworker tell me about a pretty bad cancer diagnosis over the phone, and even without the added complication of “being the only person who knows about it” (!!!) I needed to speak with people to process that.

    3. Not Australian*

      With due respect, he *made* it her problem when he told her. Whether it’s true or not, he’s deliberately made her part of it – and she’s simply (and reasonably IMHO) looking for advice about how to handle that.

      1. Ali + Nino*

        Agree. Nothing malicious about this – she purposely spoke about it only with people removed from the situation.

      2. J.B.*

        Precisely. And it is not surprising that the coworker chose a colleague who was a woman to share this with. Men are far less likely to be expected to give emotional support like this.

      3. hbc*

        Yes, and making clear that she was the *only* person he was telling made it an extra special burden.

        I actually think it’s more likely that he told a lot of people that they were the only ones he was telling, but I come to that after being super diligent about keeping confidences like this and then finding out that everybody knows. :/

    4. Silver*

      She felt like she needed to share it with her family because it was huge scary news that her coworker told her no one else was aware of. A lot of people in that situation would turn to people they trust to help understand the situation

      1. UKDancer*

        Yes. I tell my mother about things happening at work that I can’t tell people at work about because they’re in confidence. My mother doesn’t know anyone at work, she’s in a different town and very discreet. One has to tell things to someone sometimes to help process them.

      2. BlueSwimmer*

        And…he put this emotionally scary news on her at a time when she was away from work and focused on her impending motherhood. It was bound to trigger emotions at an already emotional time, and to make her wonder how to handle it. If a co-worker told me they were having major surgery and facing cancer with no family or friend support and I was the only one they were telling, I would feel an awkward sense of responsibility to help them beyond our work relationship, offering to drive them home from surgery, bringing them meals, etc. He put this on her at a time when she was about to have surgery and a new baby and couldn’t do any of that for someone else, so talking through what her response should be with people who don’t work with him seems logical.

        I had a co-worker who took a week off for cancer surgery and was seen on social media at a musical festival, so this threw up red flags for me. Telling someone about to have a baby and then asking them to keep it secret and saying you have no other support seems like an “emotional vampire” move.

        1. Sleeping Late Every Day*

          You’d have hated me since I went out to lunch with friends (pre-Covid) two days after cancer surgery. Major cancer, but the surgery was pretty simple. And with laparoscopic surgery, most patients aren’t usually bed-ridden stereotypes now. Don’t judge.

          1. tessa*

            Why not?

            Asking off a week because you’re having cancer surgery isn’t the same as using two days for the surgery and staying out for the rest of the time off. I mean, sure, people’s time off is for them to use as they see fit, but it’s dishonest to imply your week off is devoted solely to cancer surgery. Why not just say “Need two days off for cancer surgery and another three for music festival”?

            1. Userper Cranberries*

              It’s entirely possible for someone to recover faster than average. For all we know, their doctors said “book a week off work to recover” since that’s average for the surgery, then on day 2 cleared them to go home/out because they were doing better than expected.

            2. Insert Clever Name Here*

              Because, generally, you don’t have (and are not entitled to) all the information. As this person’s coworker, how would you know the conversation with the boss didn’t go “my doctor has told me that people need anywhere from a few days to a week off for this surgery, depending on recovery. I’m going to take the whole week off and hope that I have a few days to just relax after recovering!”

              Because hot damn, if I had surgery for cancer and then recovered quickly for SURE I’d rather go to a music festival than back to my office.

    5. Tara*

      I’m imagining these people have no connection to the colleague, so it doesn’t make any difference to him whether she’s told them or not. What it probably has done, has made it much easier for her to process this whilst already going through something extremely stressful.

      1. Spencer Hastings*

        Yeah, and I doubt she’s telling her mom “Fergus Jones told me he has cancer…”, more like “a guy at work” or whatever. My mom doesn’t know the names of people I work with (unless she’s actually met them, which is almost never the case) — the LW’s situation may well be the same.

    6. No Name Today*

      I didn’t think OP wanted to disclose about the illness. I thought OP wants to speak up about colleague’s poor performance, but feels like she can’t because she knows he’s been sick. She’s asking if her background info forces her to suck up the problems he’s causing her.

    7. Sam I Am*

      It sounds like co-worker asked OP to not share it at work, basically implying it was ok to share otherwise.

      1. Despachito*

        But if someone dumps on you heavily loaded information which is unasked for to relieve himself, does it really oblige you to never speak a word to anyone, even if it causes YOU a lot of discomfort?

        I understand why he did not want her to disclose it at work but it still feels a bit iffy. Is he really THAT lonely that his closest person is a coworker (who has already a lot on her own plate as she was having a major surgery herself)?

        I agree here that policing his looks and his dietary choices is dangerous in a sense you can easily be mistaken (you imagine that a person undergoing X must look like Y but it may not be the case), but I understand that OP factors it in that something feels off.

        I think the advice to act only if the coworker’s mistakes directly affect OP or her team is excellent. And also that on taking his word at face value – if he said he did not need any accommodations and did not want to speak about it anymore, assume it is the case, he is back to normal and wants (and should) be treated as such.

    8. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

      This comment is a little unkind. OP is trying to unpack complicated feelings–they have direct experience with terminal illnesses, with people dying of stomach cancer, with losing coworkers–of course they are going to try to process their feelings and unpack them. If they are close with their mother and sister, who are removed from the situation but know the context that OP is filtering all of this through, it is not odd at all that OP would choose to talk to them in addition to their husband. Deaths are traumatic. Watching people die is traumatic. Unexpectedly having a coworker die is traumatic. Turning to people who know, love, and support you while grappling with a situation that dredges up a lot of past trauma for you is pretty normal.

      OP, I am sorry you have been so distraught, especially while dealing with everything surrounding birth and new motherhood. I agree with Alison’s advice. Also, please be kind to yourself and let yourself off of the hook here–this isn’t your issue to manage beyond talking to your coworker or his manager. If he has health issues impacting his work, it is up to him come forward and ask your manager for support/concessions.

      1. Daisy Gamgee*

        Well said. I read Raven’s analysis and thought, “a couple of large factors, such as human emotion, are being elided here”

      2. Myrin*

        Also, OP’s dad at minimum has/had cancer and is possibly even one of the people she knows who died from it so there might be a special kind of connection between her, her mother, and her sisters when it comes to cancer as an illness.

      3. No Name Today*

        Thank you for putting words to my feeling of “because, people will people,” which does not help at all.

    9. Observer*

      I guess one thing I don’t get (and frankly, I’ve never understood with people) is why you felt you NEEDED to talk to someone about this. Its his illness to disclose or not, but you seem to want to discuss this with every single person in your life, which is a bit strange to me. Your husband? Ok. But after that, your mom and sisters? it seems a bit much.

      You say it’s a bit much – but you ignore that even in your own experience, it’s a common reaction. You may not understand it and it’s clearly not the way you would handle it, but trying to make this a THING about the OP makes no sense. Even from YOUR point of view, since you know that this is a common reaction, even though it’s weird to you.

    10. RagingADHD*

      Because this is an emotional burden, in the middle of an already emotional period of her life, with extra personal baggage of her own attached to it. Discussing emotional burdens with supportive people is a healthy way to deal with them.

      None of the people she talked to are involved with her work. She didn’t take an vow of silence. She agreed not to disclose his condition *to their manager and team.*

    11. Lynca*

      He specifically dumped this information on her and then pulled the “BUT DONT TELL ANYONE!” card. That’s a lot to deal with emotionally and frankly manipulative on his part.

      She needed to discuss it because the co-worker tried to make her carry this secret on her own while she was facing her own medical issues! It’s very normal to seek help dealing with the feelings and thoughts you have about that. I’m glad you don’t need to do that, but a lot of us (myself included) would.

      I’m with OP’s mom that I wouldn’t trust him after this.

    12. Double A*

      He also told her this right before she went out on maternity leave. In my experience, that is a state of heightened stress and anxiety, especially during this pandemic. Postpartum can also be a wild ride. Even though I’m normally a very even keeled person, in this period for me, small things lead to huge stress. So I can absolutely see this revelation taking on an outsized role in her mind (not that it seems like such a big deal to talk to people close to you about a situation that is stressing you out.)

    13. Falling Diphthong*

      Because it’s a burden and stressful to manage, and it’s okay to share what’s hurting you with Team You and lean on them for support or advice.

      Coworker should not have drafted the LW into the position of being the only person on Team Him (apparently not even including his family?) and she is allowed to not cooperate when a coworker tries to do this. At all, and especially when she has her own arriving baby to focus on. I’m glad she didn’t cooperate with the implied “you will be my sole support” stuff.

      (As someone who’s had cancer: It’s really unfair when people try to do this to one person in their life, usually a spouse–“I’ll lean on you, and you lean on no one.” People aren’t designed to endlessly absorb your problems with nowhere to transfer the burden. And this is a coworker with whom one has a pleasant and civil working relationship, so trying to make them be the sole support is even stranger, and even more something to resist.)

      1. Sylvia*

        “People aren’t designed to endlessly absorb your problems with nowhere to transfer the burden.”

        This is so true, and it doesn’t get said enough.

        1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

          Oof. I have a friend who is definitely trying to be this kind of absorption. They are close to someone who is having a lot of trauma in their life (I am being deliberately vague) and my friend is this someone’s main source of support. My friend won’t talk with anyone else about the someone’s problems, not out of privacy concerns but because they don’t want to burden anyone else with the feelings involved in hearing about trauma. I won’t push them on this, but I do feel like it’s unnecessarily burdening my friend. I am not close to the someone and so don’t think hearing about the situation would hit me as hard as it hits my friend, and I think it could ease their mind. (Or talking to a different friend who’s not me but also not close to the someone.)

          1. Insert Clever Name Here*

            I hope your friend will consider talking to a therapist, pastor, or somebody who has experience dealing with trauma. I had a friend pull the “here’s this major thing do not tell a single soul” with me (it wasn’t traumatic, just very troubling) and I ultimately talked to my pastor about it which greatly, greatly helped me deal with the situation. My friend wasn’t thrilled when she found out I’d done that, but begrudgingly admitted it wasn’t fair of her to get to dump on me and leave me with nowhere to go.

        2. essie*

          So true!!
          (possible TW ahead…)
          Speaking from personal experience: I had a close friend who at one point was very suicidal (she was getting the help she needed and she is ok now) tell me that I was not allowed to tell anyone she was suicidal. Mind you, her mental health crisis was not a secret to those close to her and she had a big circle of family and friends who supported her during this time, including her spouse, but she leaned on me heavily and then told me I could tell none of my circle about it. She said it’d be gossip if I told anyone. I told her that I couldn’t promise not to tell anyone but that’d I’d leave her name out of it and speak of it only in vague terms and she still maintained it was gossip. Spoiler alert: I confided in my mom, because somehow I needed support after talking to an actively suicidal person every day for a week. As far as my friend knows, I told no one. We all need support!

        3. Azure Jane Lunatic*

          When my now-partner was disentangling their life from that of their abusive ex, she pulled the “you can’t tell anyone about Our Relationship Problems except this one person (who I have chosen for you)” thing on them. It was an extremely unfair thing for her to attempt to do.

          They chose instead to tell several people who had no connection to her, and we all had other people to talk to. We would explicitly tag out when (or ideally before) we were completely overwhelmed.

      2. CoveredinBees*

        ” “I’ll lean on you, and you lean on no one.” People aren’t designed to endlessly absorb your problems with nowhere to transfer the burden. ”

        Yup. There has always been something about me that people feel comfortable just confiding in me. Even when I don’t know them well. It wasn’t so bad earlier on but as I’ve gotten older there have been heavier and heavier things with no thought to maybe I’m not the one to drop them on because of my own experiences. So, even if this colleague wasn’t being weird about the whole thing, I think it was wrong of him to drop this on OP.

    14. Chlorite*

      OP didn’t request input on whether the commentariat felt she was out of line in sharing a stressful and odd work situation with her sisters and mother. She specifically is asking about how to handle this situation at work.

    15. Well...*

      This is such a strange take. The impulse talk to people about things on your mind is a very human one? There’s a huge evolutionary advantage to having the impulse to share life/death information and status with others in your social group. We of course can manage that impulse in today’s world and lean on our support systems (as OP did) rather than spread it around work or bottle it up and end up in less control over our reactions.

      I also think there’s something going on here with emotional labor. Hearing a terminal diagnosis from a coworker and then holding the secret for months is a huge emotional labor ask. OP is doing a very good job managing it as far as I can tell. Criticizing the toll it’s taking on her (needing to talk it out with family) and demanding different behavior is very dismissive of emotional lifting in general here.

    16. yala*

      Being the only person bearing the burden that someone you know is dying is emotionally taxing. Generally, keeping any sort of secrets about bad things that are happening is.

      It seems a bit unkind to say she wants to “discuss this with every single person in your life.” Her husband and her sisters doesn’t seem like a massive slew of people, especially if they’re say, people that the guy himself doesn’t know or have to interact with.

      To be honest, I think it was kind of inappropriate of him to tell her and *only* her (and tell her she was the only one who knew). Or, maybe inappropriate isn’t the right word. I don’t know. But it’s asking a lot of someone that you’re just work acquaintances with to be the Secret Keeper of Your Impending Mortality that not even the people closest to you know about.

    17. Batgirl*

      Getting some input on how proportional her response should be, from people whose judgement she trusts, is not a difficult thing to understand.

    18. bookartist*

      You read advice columns and still wonder why people talk to other people about their problems?

    19. Not So NewReader*

      People seek advice from others and that is to be expected.

      Notice here that the mere mention of not understanding something a bunch of people jumped in to try to help you understand why people confide in multiple people. You did not directly ask anyone to answer you, but we did. And this is how life works. Right now, someone read your post and turned to their partner or friend and said, “This poster does not understand why people need to talk to each other about difficult or odd situations in life. Isn’t that odd?” And so it goes.

    20. BJP*

      I’m not sure if you are familiar with the term “emotional labor” but women in the workplace are often tasked with doing this sort of thing — managing other folks’ feelings, often those of male colleagues. Her male co-worker chose to burden her with this. It’s a lot to handle being told you are the ONLY person who knows about someone’s purportedly life-threatening diagnosis.

  3. A Penguin!*

    I would proceed as if I didn’t know about the state of his diagnosis. If his work is causing problems that would otherwise have me go to the boss for help, that’s what I’d do (and if I wouldn’t bring this to the boss if it was another coworker, then I’d be similarly hands off with this one). Just stick to the work-impact problems, without going into the reasons. If he needs accommodations in his work due to his illness, the proper person for him to take that up with is his boss, not his coworker(s).

    1. Person from the Resume*

      This is an complicated story that the LW’s been told and I too have suspicions, but I generally agree.

      I think the LW should tell herself that her coworkers cancer is in remission and that’s great news. Basically he’s healthy; no more treatments. Treat him as if he is no longer sick and if his poor performance requires her saying anything to their boss/manager do so based only on poor performance. Basically treat him as everyone else who hasn’t heard of the stomach cancer is treating him. Treat him as a healthy coworker because that’s true as far as you know.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        It’s hard to remove all that complicated backstory and just process the work-relevant parts. The correct thing to do, but I totally get why it’s hard not to shrug that stuff off.

        1. Person from the Resume*

          I agree. The story as told by the LW is suspicious as hell. And it brought up some very upsetting emotions for the LW including memories of past losses to stomach cancer. I have great sympathy for the LW. But her best action is to keep repeatedly telling herself that isn’t it great the he’s in remission and now she gets to treat him as normal.

    2. learnedthehardway*

      I agree – and I think this is completely justified. The OP needs to put her own oxygen mask on first here, and if Co-worker’s failing to perform is going to affect her work and performance, then she needs to take care of herself. She shouldn’t disclose her colleague’s illness – but she also should not let his performance derail her own.

    3. Cait*

      Exactly. OP should address their concerns with (let’s just say ‘Bob’) directly and keep it purely professional. No mention of his illness or treatment whatsoever. If Bob hems and haws and blames his work issues on his illness then OP needs to tell Bob that, illness or not, the work issues OP is concerned about need to be addressed. If Bob can’t or won’t find a way to improve then OP should go to management to talk about Bob’s work issues. No mention of his illness. If Bob wants to defend himself by brining up his illness to management, that’s up to him.

      Part of me really wonders if his illness was for real though. Something really sounds fishy here and I’m trying to figure out why someone would fake an illness for the benefit of one person. He enjoys the dramatics but doesn’t want to be caught? He initially got a bad diagnosis but it was a mistake and he didn’t want to look bad? He wants to be able to slack off and foist work on the OP without being called out? Everything might be 100% legit but something just seems off.

      1. Percysowner*

        Well we don’t know if she is the only one he told. If everyone abides by “don’t tell anyone “ he can tell a lot of people. That is what makes me wonder. She said they have a good relationship but not that they are besties so why pick her and only her.

      2. Cheap Ass Rolls*

        I, too, was thinking that it was very fishy that he only told her, and didn’t want her telling anyone else. The timing is especially weird – she was going to be out on maternity leave. Something about it just seems very odd.

        He doesn’t need to gain anything overtly from this kind of act – he could just enjoy the attention from one person, he could be low-key manipulating just for his own enjoyment.

        Or he could not! Who knows. But I also got a weird vibe.

      3. hbc*

        If she was actually the only person he told, I suspect her maternity leave had something to do with it. Not necessarily something that he’s even conscious of, but maybe feeling the need to have some of OP’s attention while she was gone, or feeling like she was a maternal source of comfort, or just that she wouldn’t blab to the boss because she was on leave.

  4. River Otter*

    Abdominal surgery can mean a lot of things, from the open abdominal surgery that the OP had to a laparoscopic procedure that really might only take a long weekend to recover from, depending on how the surgery went and where the incision points were located. I wouldn’t read too much into his recovery time there.
    Just focus on the impact to you of his work and address it as you would address the situation without any health concerns. It is up to him to decide whether he wants to bring that up with his manager or not and to deal with his workload and work quality if he chooses not to bring it up.

    1. bunniferous*

      Yes, laparoscopic is way way easier than regular. I compare my gall bladder surgery to my mom’s-hers was way more extensive than mine with a six week recovery while with me I was back to work in a week (and many people can go back sooner! Mine was over 20 years ago.)

      But in any case he threw you a burden that wasn’t fair in my opinion. If I were in your shoes I would have a talk with him.

    2. Siege*

      It’s like any other condition. I have a coworker with ADHD, which I also have, who is making me nuts because her adjustments aren’t working and it’s impacting my workload. It doesn’t matter that she has it, our boss and I are allowed to discuss how we handle my workload under the existing circumstances. You can’t infinitely make allowances for conditions that impact your work so badly. You can talk to your manager about this and your coworker can choose to disclose what’s going on or not, but either he needs to improve or the company needs to set up some accommodations such as spreading his workload out. You are not his accommodation.

      1. Momma Bear*

        I agree. I wouldn’t even talk about possible medical issues but what affects ME and let the manager push back to whoever needs pushing.

    3. Spicy Tuna*

      +1 to this. A co-worker and I had surgeries scheduled for the same day (a Friday). Different issues, but same area of the body. Mine was laparoscopic and hers was not. I was back at work on Monday and she was out for at least 2 weeks, IIRC.

    4. Guacamole Bob*

      From OP’s letter, it also sounds like they are mostly or entirely remote. Being able to log back in and work remotely may come a fair amount earlier in the recovery process than being able to commute and spend all day in an office, especially if you have flexibility to work partial remote days at first.

      1. quill*

        Or to work staggered hours, like 4 hours in the morning, lunch and an hour’s nap, four hours later on…

    5. SleepyKitten*

      Yep! Back in the days before keyhole surgery, all abdominal surgery would have been difficult to recover from, because you have to go through a literal wall of muscle with a hand-sized hole. It’s kept its reputation, but these days if you get keyhole surgery then recovery is much quicker. And people heal at different rates – my sister took years to heal from a small ankle fracture, whereas a friend regrew a pulverised humerous in like 6 months. Bodies, man.

      C-sections will always be rough though, cause you can’t fit a baby through a keyhole…

  5. Unfettered scientist*

    I don’t know much about stomach cancer but I just want to offer that sometimes people do get diagnosed with “terminal” cancer and live! Someone in my family was in this situation where he was given a short amount of time but totally beat the odds and is doing remarkably ok despite the diagnosis even years later. Also, he never looked sick. Depending on treatment, your coworker might not ever lose his hair or weight. Not to say your coworker is 100% truthful, but that this story can happen. I also think some doctors will give the worst-case scenario to patients because there’s a non-zero chance that that happens, but it’s not a guarantee.

    1. Lab Boss*

      Also some people define “terminal illness” as “I am going to die from this” while others define it as “this could realistically kill me” even if a full recovery is much more likely.

      1. ThatGirl*

        I can definitely see someone panicking upon diagnosis and being convinced that they’re gonna die — and then it turns out surgery is curative (or surgery + other treatment, etc.)

      2. Falling Diphthong*

        “This will kill me if I don’t have it treated” and “It was caught early, before it metastasized, and if I’m lucky surgery will remove it all” can both be true. Your brain might fixate on the first even as you numbly make medical appointments for the second.

      3. UKDancer*

        Also terminal cancer can take a long time to kill people in some cases and medical estimates can be inaccurate or wrong. My grandfather had terminal prostate cancer and they gave him 2-3 years. He lasted 15 years in the end because he just kept on living and it grew really slowly.

    2. Super Duper Anon*

      The doctor could have said that they see a tumor but it is small and they are not sure if it is cancer or benign and he immediately panicked and went to “I have terminal cancer” in his head. If they did a laparoscopic surgery, removed the tumor and found it it was benign, he would not need chemo or radiation and would recover quickly. He may be embarrassed to admit he went immediately to the worst case and does not want to discuss it any more.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        This is an excellent point–maybe it was less “craft elaborate scheme to ensnare LW as official sympathizer” and more “panicked, then felt embarrassed.”

        1. londonedit*

          My first thought was either that he didn’t fully understand the impact of ‘terminal’ and used the wrong word (I’m having a lot of conversations with people at the moment about how ‘autoimmune condition’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘immunocompromised’) or that the outlook turned out to be more optimistic than he thought, and he then felt embarrassed about having told the OP that it was terminal. I can imagine that he might have told OP before anyone else because he knew they were going off on leave – they might have seemed like a ‘safe’ person to tell because they weren’t going to be there day-to-day, or if he genuinely thought he might die then he might have wanted to tell the OP in case he wasn’t there when they got back. There’s nothing to say he *never* told his family – it could have been a ‘Look, I haven’t told anyone else yet [and therefore don’t tell anyone] but I wanted to tell you now because I know you’re off on leave soon’ sort of thing.

          1. Wintermute*

            My favorite story similar to this was someone, who was perhaps too educated for their own good, having to be told that people, now cows, get rheumatoid arthritis… it has nothing to do with being a ruminant!

            Before they changed the official name to type-1 and type-2 (and or primary and secondary) “childhood diabetes” caused a lot of confusion too, people who thought that when their diabetic child turned 18 they would stop needing insulin and could use drugs for “adult diabetes” like metformin, or conversely, not understanding a child could technically have “adult” diabetes.

      2. Global Cat Herder*

        I think this is the likeliest scenario. He overreacted and told OP prior to the biopsy, and the biopsy was negative.

        I have a cousin who heard “There’s a tumor”, and in her head it became “I have cancer”, which became “I have a terminal disease”, which became “I will be dead after this biopsy.” To the point that she did some bucket list things and had a farewell dinner the night before the biopsy … which determined it’s just a cystic tumor, normal and benign. She was so embarrassed that she not only deleted all of it from her social media, she flat-out denied any of it had ever happened.

        1. PT*

          We had a similar but less dramatic situation with my MIL. She had a large ovarian tumor and had no family anywhere nearby, so she was going to the doctor by herself and then relaying what the doctor said to my husband.

          My MIL is an anxious person and the game of telephone between what the doctor told her, and what she heard, and then what she told my husband and what he heard, led to a lot of confusion as to where she was in the process and what support she was going to need. Thankfully she only ended up needing surgery and no follow up treatments, but the whole time before that was very chaotic and stressful for everyone involved.

          I could absolutely see someone who is in that very worried and scared mindset not understanding or communicating clearly as to what is going on.

          1. quill*

            One of my grandmothers was similar, but with a variety of issues with retaining a competent doctor. Over the years, my dad and his siblings learned that between her absolute lack of medical knowledge, her tendency to jump to conclusions, and her declining memory, her word on what was going on medically was not useful.

            1. DrRat*

              Oh, lord, I’ve been there with this with my MIL when my hubby was alive. He ended up in the hospital with a mystery infection. I would say, “Well, they think it might be X, they are going to do some tests for it.” Two days later, I say, “Well, they have ruled out X.” She would say EVERY TIME, “But you told me it was X!” No, I told you X was a POSSIBILITY. And we went through the same exact conversation for possible factor after possible factor and it never sunk in with her.

          1. littlehope (formerly Blue, there were two of us)*

            I have to say that was my first thought – coworker got a scary diagnosis, rather understandably went “Oh shit, I’m going to die,” then realised he wasn’t, in fact, going to die and is now embarrassed and just wants to pretend it never happened.

            OP, I can easily imagine in your position feeling a need to understand what the hell just happened- it was weird and upsetting! Would it help to just…decide that this explanation is what happened? That way you have a narrative to make sense of what happened, one that doesn’t mean you have to worry that your coworker is doing something shady and distressing, and one that allows you to just go ahead and deal with the problem of his work issues.

            Because if you assume that is what happened, then you can just take him at his word that everything’s normal now, that’s the way he wants it, and you can handle his performance issues as you normally would, which I think is the right thing to do.

            Like, I understand very well why you’d have an emotional need to understand what’s going on, (I would too) but in practical terms you don’t actually need to figure this out, so maybe that’s a way to take that burden off yourself?

    3. londonedit*

      Yep, people can live for many years with a terminal diagnosis that’s managed with medication etc – in my experience people can have various misconceptions about cancer and other long-term illnesses and can assume all ‘cancer patients’ fit the model of ‘looking really ill, having chemo, on their death bed’. My mum had to deal with people being weirdly disappointed that she had no big ‘it’s in remission’ moment with her cancer – they removed it all surgically, she had belt-and-braces chemo, and then it was ‘well, we’re as confident as we can be that you’re now free of cancer’. So people would ask ‘are you in remission now??’ and she’d say ‘well that’s not really how it all worked but they’re pretty confident they got it all’, and that wasn’t the answer people wanted. What I’m saying is that people’s experiences of cancer can and do vary wildly, and just because this chap doesn’t fit the OP’s ideas of what ‘someone with cancer’ or ‘someone who’s had abdominal surgery’ is like, that doesn’t mean he’s somehow lying about it.

      I do think, though, that all the OP can do is to focus on the impact his work (or lack of) is having on them and their ability to do their job – I think it would definitely be appropriate to speak to the boss, but stick to the facts about ‘Fergus isn’t getting his reports to me on time, and it’s making things very difficult because I can’t send things to the client in good time to meet the deadline’ or whatever. It’s up to the boss to speak to Fergus about his work performance, and it’s up to Fergus to disclose his diagnosis if he wants to. I know the OP wants Fergus to be able to take advantage of the support etc that the company can offer, but that’s up to him – as long as he’s made aware of it, that’s all anyone can do.

      1. Erin F*

        That was exactly my husbands experience with cancer as well. People constantly ask if he was able to “ring the bell” or hold up cancer free signs but that not been his experience. He had his tumor removed, chemo (which was oral and didn’t cause any side effects other than super dry feet) and now he doesn’t have any detectable cancer at the moment. He only took a week to recover from having a foot of colon removed because I made him. He was feeling pretty much back to normal after a couple days. Everyone copes with cancer differently and everyone handles treatment differently based on age, general health and a ton of other factors. OP you are so kind to be worried about him, but please don’t spend any more of your mental energy trying to get the pieces to fit together. Cancer makes no sense.

        1. Quoth the Raven*

          My mum’s experience with breast cancer was very similar. They caught it super early and surgery was swift — I think there was a week between “oh hey, Doctor, there’s this lump on my breast” and surgery –, was treated with Tamoxifen, and that was it. She didn’t lose her hair, nor much weight, and she only had a partial mastectomy, so physically she didn’t change much either. She was a teacher and it coincidentally happened around the time the school year was coming to an end, so she didn’t really miss much work. Doesn’t mean it didn’t scare the hell out of her, or that her immediate thoughts weren’t “I might die”.

          She’s here, over 26 years later, free from cancer. I’m hearing her talk to my sister on the phone in her bedroom right now.

      2. Metadata minion*

        Yeah, that was similar to my experience — very early-stage thyroid cancer, removed my thyroid, cancer gone. They didn’t even have to do the radioiodine thing. I have to get screened every two years just in case, but realistically, they got it all. The surgery itself was significant and I’ll have to be on replacement thyroid hormone for the rest of my life, but the fact that it was due to cancer was almost incidental.

      3. Cle*

        Yep, my mom had metastatic breast cancer for a decade before passing away. Her initial treatment period was rough, as were the last few months of her life, but in between you would have never known anything was wrong.

    4. Green great dragon*

      Yep, and also people can have in their minds cancer=’terminal illness’ even if their own case has a good prognosis. LW is correct about the actual definition of ‘terminal illness, but unless he said something else about expecting it to be fatal that might have just been a misuse of the word (and maybe more likely he wasn’t telling people if it was caught in the early stages=they would likely never have to find out)?

      Still lots of oddities, but might be easier for LW to make big allowances for possible mis-speaking.

    5. ES*

      My dad had colon cancer in his early thirties, when I tell doctors this they ask when he died. His initial prognosis was extremely poor, but he got a second opinion. He had surgery, the removed the cancer, and luckily it never spread! He was out of work for longer than a weekend, but he didn’t look like a traditional cancer patient at all. He doesn’t even like to call himself a cancer “survivor” because he didn’t have the typical experience. He’s now in his sixties running marathons!

      All of this to say, the coworker could have truly been told his illness was terminal. He may have been in a situation like my dad, and was lucky enough to come out the other side the same way. I would not assume he lied.

    6. Irish girl*

      I have 2 uncles that have “terminal cancer”. Both have been told by the Dr that this cancer will kill them even with treatment. Statically its just more likely that the cancer will kill them before old age/natural causes. They are both on ongoing chemo to maintain the level of the cancer as it is slow growing but will never go away. Both would die earlier if there was no intervention. Neither look sick. Sometimes i forget they even have cancer until i hear they are isolated for another round of chemo. But they could drop dead of a heart attack or stroke or get hit by a car tomorrow.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re absolutely right. Some cancers are super aggressive, but some grow so slowly that you don’t actually need to treat it, since by the time it became fatal you would be in your 120’s. I wish doctors had better tools to figure out which is which; it would save a lot of overtreatment and improve quality-of-life.

  6. Not A Doctor*

    While I would sure love to know a whole lot more about his health situation (because I have a bad case of Nosy-itis) Alison’s right. You don’t need to figure that whole situation out. If his job performance is affecting you directly, talk to him and if nothing changes, talk to your manager. Leave his health situation out of it entirely. If he needs accomodations for health reasons, he can work that out with your manager and with HR. Even if he was gaunt, head shaved, sipping on green juices, and looking like the specter of death, Alison’s advice stands.

    1. Tara*

      Yep, I have a lot of questions, namely – why only tell this random coworker? But fundamentally, I think, if they don’t want their manager to know about this, you’re doing the greatest kindest by treating the situation as you would with any team member who was letting the side down.

      1. Anon for this*

        I think it wasn’t really random – she was about to go on leave, so I think it’s possible he wanted to catch her before she went.

    2. kiki*

      Yes, this is totally one of those situations where it would be really gratifying to get the whole truth, but as a coworker, you’re probably not going to get it. I would bring up your performance concerns to your manager. Bringing things to your manager isn’t necessarily “tattling” or getting your colleague in trouble, it’s making sure your manager knows what’s going on and can find ways to make the situation workable for everyone.

      Once, I was going through a hard time in my personal life and unfortunately it was showing up in my work performance. One of my close coworker friends knew what was going on with me, but I was trying to be “professional” and not bring my personal life into the office. It was making me so stressed out to be flailing at work and dealing with everything else. Once my manger knew I was going through something in my personal life, everything got so much better! My manager insisted I take the week off (paid), my coworkers were able to take over my work without an issue once they knew they’d have to do it in advance instead of waiting for me to drop the ball. When I came back from my week off, my manager had found a more laid-back assignment for me to do for a few weeks. When that assignment was done and I was feeling a lot better, I was back on the team at full capacity and everyone was happy to have me. This is all to say a good manager understands even great employees have bad times and part of their job is finding solutions for those times.

  7. CatCat*

    He told me he wasn’t telling anyone except me — not his family, our manager, anyone.

    Okay, that is A LOT to heap onto a co-worker. Frankly, I think you can draw up a boundary around this going forward. I don’t know the verbiage. As awful as the diagnosis is and people deal with things in weird ways, this was unreasonable and unfair to put a secret like this solely on OP. Like he had NO familial support? That… falls on OP? What? And then he is unresponsive when she tries to reach out? It just isn’t okay.

    Again, I don’t know what the words are here, but there has to be a way to step back from fulfilling whatever role he is trying to get OP to fulfill in his life.

    1. EPLawyer*

      This is the best advice. Going forward, you don’t allow this person to dump on you. It’s not fair to you to be the sole bearer of this burden. Especially now you have all these doubts. Better to pull back and protect yourself from more unwanted unburdening.

    2. Three Flowers*

      Yeah, this is what was weird to me. WHY OP?? OP is not Coworker’s best buddy, family member, manager, HR person handling leave, doctor, therapist, EAP specialist, etc. So why tell OP specifically?

      Two guesses: attention-seeking behavior, or some kind of cognitive shortcut like “pregnant person is a mom-to-be and can therefore be my substitute mom.”

      I’ve been in (am still in, technically) a situation where a colleague was talking about their various health and family issues while their performance plummeted and they refused any proactive action. I also know someone who died of stomach cancer and how very not-okay he looked during treatment (and he had a statistically much better outcome for a while), so I totally get the “what is *really* going on” questions…but to me, the absolute weirdest and most frankly suspicious thing about this whole mess is not the story itself, but that he told OP specifically.

    3. Important Moi*

      The words can be (if something like this comes up again).

      “I am terribly sorry for your diagnosis. I will support you as best I can. I do have to let you know I am not comfortable being the only person you’ve shared this with.”

      You’ve explained your boundary and the other person can do with it what they wish.

      1. anonymous73*

        I might even add “I will support you as best I can in a work capacity”. They are colleagues. OP has zero obligation to carry the weight of something like outside of helping him out with work.

    4. HigherEdAdminista*

      This is honestly what makes me the most suspicious of his story. While there are some people with very small support circles, he mentions having a family but specifically not telling them. There could be many reasons not to tell a family, but LW does not seem to have been best friends with this person. It is very odd to me that he singled out a colleague to tell this to and made sure to let her know she would be the only one that would know, so there’s no chance of her mentioning it to anyone.

      Are there other people who count on work from him who are giving him a bit of slack? Because really he could have told a lot of people at work that they were the only person he was telling and they are all sitting on this information, thinking they are doing him a favor (or being baffled why he told only them) by cutting him some slack when really he’s told this story to a bunch of people who are all unaware that they all are supposedly the “only” one to know this.

      Not at this level, but something similar happened to a friend of mine. A colleague at her job went around telling people in the office that she was confiding in them specifically about a certain thing that was about to happen, but swore them to secrecy. When the thing didn’t happen, she claimed the timeline had changed and added some new details. Eventually, something came out and it was discovered she was telling tales around the office the entire time and each of them felt like they were the only one in on this information, when really it was just a little hobby for her to make things up.

    5. Sloan Kittering*

      “I’m so sorry to hear that. I can’t be the only person in the loop on this, particularly because I’m headed out on leave myself shortly – and I won’t be able to help you keep things a secret from our boss or the team. You should consider reaching out to [employee EAP, manager, any therapeutic support services]” I’m a bit suspicious that because you are a new mother-to-be, he assumes you will do his emotional labor around this, but it’s okay to push back. If these scripts seem unbearably rude to you, maybe reflect on how we are socialized as women to be everyone’s empathy buddy.

    6. MistOrMister*

      Yep, I would absolutely not want to be in that kind of situation. Not at all. It’s one thing if this is your work best friend. But the situation just rings odd. I think making sure to not be in the position of being this person’s dumping ground going forward would be a good thing. Granted, it would probably feel cruel, but no one has to put themselves into that position. And given that the coworker is acting kind of suspiciously, I would want some distance there.

    7. D*

      I know this guy has cancer which is terrible, but I’m glad I’m not the only person annoyed that this dude decided to just drop all of his personal problems on a sympathetic pregnant lady dealing with her own shit. It’s probably not a totally fair opinion but it’s just so frustrating when you see a pattern of men expecting emotional care from women in semi-inappropriate contexts. Not in a super not okay way, but like really…your pregnant coworker who you have a pleasant relationship with is the one person you decide should carry this burden with you?

      1. Dr Sarah*

        I think that *is* a totally fair opinion. Yes, we want to cut this guy a lot of slack as he might well have been through a very frightening and distressing experience… but that doesn’t absolve him of all responsibility to consider other people. At the very least, he could have sent co-worker a message to say ‘Just wanted to share the great news that I’m making a full recovery after treatment. Thank you so much for all your help.’

      2. Imaginary Friend*

        I hate to say it, but: we don’t actually know that this guy had cancer. We only know that he SAID he had cancer.

    8. Software Engineer*

      That’s what I was thinking. That seems like way too much baggage to put on a coworker! You can feel sympathetic and empathetic and also try and set boundaries and not take on someone else’s problems. Unless you’re besties outside of work who happen to work together (doesn’t sound like it) this is super inappropriate. Of course people do weird things when freaking out like when diagnosed with a serious illness but still

  8. Nonny*

    Just to address that he doesn’t look ill, my mom has stage iv breast cancer and when she was diagnosed we all expected surgery and chemo, and hair loss and nausea, etc. however her treatment has not involved any of that because she’s terminal. She doesn’t look like a “cancer patient” at all. She takes two pills and gets an injection once every three months. It’s actually been a bit of a relief that her treatment isn’t too traumatic and thankfully it’s working very well right now.

    I’m not sure how stomach cancer is treated, but he could be in the same situation where treatment for terminal cancer looks very different than for cancers caught at earlier stages.

    1. Anonymous, colleagues who read here will recognize it*

      My son has a brain tumor. He’s been on chemo off and on for 14 years. Standard drugs, study drugs, IV drugs, oral drugs, implanted port, no port…

      Except for days we had to wheel him out of the clinic in a wheelchair, you couldn’t tell he was sick.

      The only time he looked substantially different was when he was on a steroid to counteract an allergy to the chemo (fun times) and he puffed up.

      And yes, the tumor is potentially life-threatening.

      People have all sorts of mistaken ideas about cancer and tumors. (And about other illnesses too). Don’t assume, OP. I’m sorry your co-worker dumped it on you — that’s a heavy load — but follow Alison’s advice.

      And take your coworker’s statements at face value. Because there’s a non-zero chance they’re true.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        I understand why OP is surprised–she has known people with terminal stomach cancer, and they looked extremely sick–but cancer can go so many different ways. I hope everything works out well for your son, and sooner rather than later.

    2. Engineer with Breast Cancer*

      Hey, I also have to take two drugs (cdk 4/6 inhibitor and AI) and I get an IV and a shot once a month (bone strengthen and ovarian suppression). I totally agree I don’t look sick, but I feel tired all of the time, from about a hour after I wake up until I go to sleep. I think the OP should extend a little more grace to the guy.

      1. Nonny*

        Yes, I should have said my mom gets extremely fatigued from her treatment along with some other minor side effects. It’s not a walk in the park, but it looks very different from what I guess is typically depicted. I hope you’re doing as well as you can be with your treatment.

    3. LTR/FTP*

      I’ve got cancer. I didn’t want to tell them at work, and I wouldn’t have if I could have gotten away with it.
      People with cancer are not a monolith. They don’t all waste away (I gained a ton of weight in treatment!). They aren’t always bald and throwing up, I looked just fine after my surgery, nobody would have known if I didn’t tell them.

      People are VERY WEIRD about hearing a cancer diagnosis from someone else. I learned a lot about people when I told them about mine. The very worst ones made it all about themselves instead of about me.

      I think OP needs to mind their own business, frankly.

      1. Gumby*

        Except the dude made it her business when he dumped a “terminal cancer” bomb on her right when she was about to go on maternity leave. Point taken about cancer looking different in different people/situations. But MYOB is not the problem OP has. She never asked for the info in the first place!

        She should, however, proceed as if she didn’t have it from now on. Because “I want him to feel supported and held up by love, prayers, strength, compassion, and resources that my company has available” is a lot to take on for someone else’s emotions. Particularly a co-worker that, from the sounds of it, wasn’t even a particularly close co-worker.

      2. AnotherLibrarian*

        She didn’t ask to be told this and she didn’t ask for him to tell her not to tell anyone. This situation was made her business by her coworker to dumped this rather traumatic news on her right before she was about to leave to have a baby. I agree that medical issues looks different in everyone, but this wasn’t something the OP asked to be part of and now she has to parse how to handle the situation.

        1. DrRat*

          Oh, come on…if I told you I just had foot surgery on Monday and the next day you saw me playing hopscotch, are you telling me you wouldn’t be suspicious that maybe I wasn’t being 100% truthful?

          The reason that is the OP’s business is because the dude dumped ALL THIS EMOTIONAL BAGGAGE on her and MADE IT her business.

          1. pancakes*

            Playing hopscotch after foot surgery and drinking a milkshake after a stomach cancer diagnosis are not comparable in terms of impossibility or improbability. Using caps doesn’t make them comparable.

  9. RagingADHD*

    I think the best possible construction you could put on this is that your colleague was speaking out of his fear and emotion of the worst-case-scenario of his diagnosis, and by the time it turned out to not be as bad as he/his doctors initially thought, he was too emotionally exhausted to rehash everything with you. I’m not sure that explanation is the most likely, but it reasonably accounts for the disparity you’re seeing.

    But whatever the backstory was, the fact that he told you he is fine, he’s in remission, and he doesn’t want to talk about the surgery means that he doesn’t need you to take up all the slack or protect him from the fallout of dropping balls at work.

    Absolutely bring up the problems he’s causing on the team. I disagree that you should tell the colleague that you want to avoid talking to the manager. I think you should just give him a heads-up that these are the problems that started when he was sick, but they aren’t getting better and the current situation is not sustainable for you long-term. And that you are going to talk to the manager about how to address the workflow issues (but not talk about his health because that’s not your business to talk about).

    If he needs accommodation for a health issue, or needs the manager to take his recovery time into consideration, then that’s between him and the manager! It’s not your job to give co-workers health accommodations to your own detriment. That’s a management issue.

    You owe him privacy about his health, but you owe him zero privacy about doing a bad job. You can push the responsibility back where it belongs (on him and the manager) without breaking his confidence about the surgery.

  10. nope*

    Just here to say that my aunt was diagnosed with STAGE 4 OVARIAN CANCER, over 20 years ago. She is here to tell the story and doing great. It was certainly considered terminal at diagnosis.

    Please know that cancer is different for everyone and many surgeries are laparoscopic with little recovery.

    1. Kate*

      But I don’t think anyone would describe stage 4 as ‘we caught it early’ – by definition it’s not early. I can see why OP’s confused – it sounds like he was saying conflicting things from the start.
      (I wonder if he actually doesn’t know what ‘terminal’ means and thought it meant something like ‘very serious’?)

      1. Sloan Kittering*

        Being generous, anything could have happened, including the doctor saying “this kind of cancer can be terminal, but here are our options …” and the coworker just heard “terminal cancer” and freaked out (understandably). But really I think OP just needs to back away from the whole thing and set clear kind boundaries – not further investigate the exact situation.

    2. Irish girl*

      My aunt is in the same boat, she is at 15 years cancer free. Her dr even said the chance of it coming back were high an it has never come back. On the other hand her younger sister died of stage 3 ovarian cancer as her’s was chemo resistant.

    3. MigraineMonth*

      As someone who learned just last week that her ovarian tumor is probably cancer, this is wonderful to hear. <3

  11. Double A*

    I feel like we periodically see letters about people who take on more than their fair share for a colleague out of a commendable sympathy for the colleague’s situation, particularly when it comes to health or disability (or perceived disability), when that colleague has not actually asked for accommodations. Doing this for a short, discrete amount of time is kind and helpful, but if the situation is long term, that employee really has a responsibility to talk to management about what is going on and formally manage the issue. The accommodation should never be, “Dump more work on a colleague, especially with no input from management.”

    I think it’s time to have a kind conversation with this colleague about how his actions are impacting your work, and talk to him about needing to work with his manager on his work load or any accommodations he needs.

    1. Beeker*

      Agreed. I think the “cancer secret” has made this more complicated than it needs to be especially as the coworker has explicitly stated he never wants to talk about his diagnosis again. Great, that’s permission to go back to normal, which is that you are coworkers and he is not pulling his weight and it is affecting you. Focus on that and leave everything else in the past.

  12. President Porpoise*

    I once had a coworker with cancer who was not pulling her weight. It was very difficult to handle. She was relatively new and just hadn’t proved as capable as we’d hoped – and then came the news that she had cancer. We were deeply concerned for her health, and as time progressed she eventually needed to go on a leave of absence. She went thru treatment and went into remission and eventual returned. However, she never hit the productivity levels that we needed (she topped out at about an eighth of the output we needed at minimum). I believe we handled the issue with compassion. we gave her time and training, and eventually when it was clear that it just wasn’t working, we offered to find her another position internally that she might be better suited to. She opted instead to take early retirement, since her husband made great money and her income was supplemental. Last I heard, she’s still in remission and went back to a previous position (where she really did excel) part time.

    It is possible to handle a serious performance issue with compassion, even to the point of termination. But it really sucks. I have no input on the potential fake illness piece – that’s really weird.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      I’ve also seen employers offer leave to workers who were too sick to continue, which allowed them to keep their insurance, and had either full or partial pay included. In one case a coworker went on disability and stayed there until they passed away. It can be a brutal system for sure but I don’t OP can fix it in her current circumstances – the coworker would need to take the lead on this.

  13. Anonanon*

    Re: cancer and looks. I dealt with a serious form of leukemia in my mid 20s and looked fabulous the entire time. I wore a wig that looked so much like my natural hair, I would run into friends who I hadn’t seen in a while, and they would have no idea what was going on with me. Not everyone loses weight, looks sickly, etc.

  14. DG*

    “Terminal” doesn’t necessarily mean someone is imminently dying – the prognosis from his doctor could be “the survival rate for this cancer is low and most people die within X years, but there are treatments we can do to slow the growth and manage symptoms in the meantime.” I had a close relative with a similar prognosis, and he definitely seemed better (if not downright “normal”) for the first few months after starting treatment. As Alison stated, many cancer treatments do not include chemo and don’t result in hair loss or other visible signs of sickness.

    Also… I don’t think it’s odd that the coworker doesn’t want to bring this up with his manager. Assuming OP is in the US, the coworker is likely reliant on his employer-provided health insurance for treatment. He may also have life insurance through his employer. If the coworker says anything to call his performance into question, takes a leave of absence that his manager knows he’s never coming back from, etc… that could compromise his employment and result in a significant financial impact for his family.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      Your last paragraph is true, but I think it’s too much to ask OP to keep this secret for him and take on covering the balls he’s dropping indefinitely. That’s just not a fair or sustainable plan for OP, the writer of this letter. If the coworker had written in with this conundrum we might have different advice, but for OP I think Alison is correct that she needs to disentangle from this.

  15. Observer*

    I’m going to echo Alison and everyone else.

    Firstly, you really don’t know what the deal is with this person. I don’t think it was right of him to dump this on you, but it is quite possible that he was and is telling the truth. What you experienced is not universal, so you can’t really use it a a benchmark for assessing your coworker’s situation. But it DOES help explain why you are having a hard time with the whole situation.

    Secondly, I agree that for the most part you should treat his performance the way you would if you hadn’t known about this. He is the one making the choice to not reach out to anyone at work for accommodation, and keeping it secret. If he wants to take the path of “this is not happening as far as work is concerned” then that includes getting his work done. You don’t HAVE to alert his manager to failings that don’t affect you. But you are totally entitled to bring up stuff that does affect you.

  16. my experience*

    When the co-worker first disclosed, he both said that it was terminal and also that they caught it early. To me, that’s indicative of someone who maybe didn’t fully understand the diagnosis at that point, or who had some changing diagnoses as he got second opinions, etc.

    For the abdominal surgery recovery, especially if you were virtual, I could see being back at work after an abdominal surgery – in fact, I have had (laproscopic) abdominal surgery on and took 2 days off, a day remote, and was back in person by Monday. Obviously it’s not everyone’s experience but I think it’s plausible!

    1. ThatGirl*

      My uncle has pancreatic cancer. The 5-year survival rate for it is about 10%, that goes up if it’s caught early/hasn’t spread – but only to about 39%. So he hasn’t described it as terminal to anyone, AFAIK, but he has a roughly 60% chance of dying from it in the next 5 years, even with successful surgery and chemo.

      Overall, I agree with you – he may not have fully understood or his prognosis changed or who knows. All of these things are potentially true.

      What really matters for the OP, though, is the effect on her work; that’s 100% the thing to focus on, and try to put the personal stuff out of her head.

    2. Free Meerkats*

      Came here to mention that all abdominal surgeries aren’t the same. A C-section requires an incision large enough to pull a baby through. A tumor removal, especially if found early, could be a couple of trochars so laparoscopes can be inserted.

      Even similar surgeries can have very different recoveries. I had a bilateral inguinal hernia repair, my incision scars are each about 5″ long. My dad had the same surgery a few years later from the same surgeon and it was done laparoscopically, his three scars were <1" each. Our recoveries were very different.

    3. Engineer with Breast Cancer*

      It’s true that early stage cancer is not terminal. However, it could just be a case of bad wording. I have incurable cancer, so advanced stage, but I also only have a couple of bone mets. This is called oligometastasis, where the metastasis is in one to two parts of your body (or <5, depending on which clinical trial you're looking at that day). So, I have "early" metastatic breast cancer. Treatment still manages to make me tired all of the time, though.

  17. MysteriousMise*

    “You don’t need to figure out whether to trust him or not. What’s going on with his health isn’t something you need to sort out. What is yours to address is the way his work habits are impacting you”

    And this is why I read AAM, and learn from it. Because this was not my initial far-less-kind, and far-less-professional reaction.

  18. Kjolis*

    OP, I understand your dilemma. One of my direct reports had a terminal illness. While she wasn’t experiencing any physical symptoms at the time, we both knew that they would develop, and it would ultimately be fatal.

    She dropped the ball on some projects, and her demeanor could sometimes be off-putting. I knew what was going on so I knew where it was coming from, but other colleagues, as well as external customers, didn’t know. They just knew she was acting somewhat rudely, and didn’t want to communicate with her.

    I had a difficult time knowing what to do. I encouraged her to take PTO when she needed it, as we had plenty. But I also needed her to be accountable when she was working.

    Unfortunately, she died by suicide – another thing I didn’t know how to handle. It’s been over a year and I’m still reeling from it, and still have no idea how I would navigate another situation like this.

    1. WantonSeedStitch*

      Oooof. That’s a lot to deal with, and I’m sorry. I think I would have handled it much like you say here: “I know you’re under a lot of strain, both physical and emotional, and I want to encourage you to take as much time off as you need to deal with this situation. But when you’re here, I need you to interact with colleagues and customers in a professional manner.”

    2. Daisy Gamgee*

      That sounds stunningly difficult. I commend how hard you worked on dealing with it and I send hopes for your continued healing and encouragement towards any help available for you.

      1. Kjolis*

        Thanks Daisy, and everyone else. I composed a letter to AAM a dozen times after the suicide, but ultimately never sent one in. Hoping this was a once-in-a-lifetime situation.

    3. Anon For This One*

      Several years ago, I had a student assistant who killed themselves. They had been dropping balls at work and really seemed like they were having a rough time of it. I had considered firing them, but ended up having some serious performance conversations. I had no idea it was a bad as it was, but I had tried to get them to contact student services, because they seemed like they were so stressed out. The only good that came out of my experience is that I got a lot more comfortable asking my student assistants directly if they were considering harming themselves when I notice signs of distress. I am so sorry you went through that Kjolis and I hope for both of us that this isn’t something many people ever have to experience.

  19. FridayFriyay*

    I agree with Alison’s advice here. I will say it does not seem either productive nor kind to speculate, as the LW clearly seems to be, that the coworker is lying about having cancer because their small sample size of personal experiences with cancer looked a certain way. Terminal means, generally, that the cancer has a high likelihood of eventually killing you regardless of what kinds of treatments you do in the meantime. A senior colleague of mine was recently diagnosed with a terminal cancer and is receiving a ton of treatment for it but looks exactly the same as they always have. No physical changes at all, despite radiation and stem cell treatments and infusions and all that. He is expected to probably live another 15-20 years with treatment, but it’s still a terminal diagnosis. Throughout he is expecting to live a fairly normal life. Not exactly his life before his diagnosis, but an outsider looking at him wouldn’t necessarily guess he was seriously ill.

    You just can’t tell.

    1. Observer*

      e. I will say it does not seem either productive nor kind to speculate, as the LW clearly seems to be, that the coworker is lying about having cancer because their small sample size of personal experiences with cancer looked a certain way.

      It’s unproductive, true. And it’s true that the OP’s experience can’t actually be generalized the way she is doing. But it’s unkind to ignore that the OP’s reaction makes a lot of sense. It’s not JUST that the CW’s trajectory looks very different from the ones the OP has seen. The CS’s behavior is also odd in other ways. Like not even telling his family – how does one even have surgery (even laparoscopic surgery) without telling their family? And that it’s affecting how the OP deals with a legitimate issue.

      I’m not judging the CW’s choice to not share with his family, assuming that he’s actually ill. But dumping his problem on a coworker really IS problematic. And it IS strange. And because it IS affecting what she believes her options are, it’s totally not surprising that she’s really wondering what’s going on here.

    2. Double A*

      I suspect the LW would be a little less suspicious of her coworker hadn’t told her she was the only one he was telling, including his family. He put a huge burden on her, and then isn’t being forthcoming about what’s going on with him. Which is he normally shouldn’t have to be, but he was the one who opened that door and it’s understandable that the LW feels he needs to tell her what’s going on, since she is apparently the only person in his life who knows.

  20. Annony*

    The easiest way forward is probably to assume that he did have cancer but is fine now. Basically what he told you. It doesn’t really matter if he lied or not because he says he is in remission. So regardless of whether he was sick, you no longer need to be careful of overburdening him and can hold him responsible for his work the same way you would have before.

  21. No Longer Gig-less Data Analyst*

    Just to chime in from a medical/recovery standpoint:

    I was diagnosed with colon cancer after my first routine colonoscopy last August. A month later I had 1/3rd of my colon removed laparoscopically. I only stayed in the hospital overnight and was back to eating/drinking/bathrooming/working normally within 2 weeks. When they biopsied my colon they thankfully found that it was only stage 1A, so I haven’t had to have any follow up chemo or other treatment.

    During all of this, I looked perfectly normal and was never sick at all. I had run a 5K two weeks before my diagnosis. Now granted, I never told anyone I was terminal, but honestly you would never know I had cancer unless I told you.

    1. two snakes*

      I had a very similar experience with Stage 2 colon cancer in June 2020 – they ended up having to do my resection open so I got six days in hospital, weeks of recovery (I was back to WFH for a few hours a day just over a week later but I did it mostly lying down) and a six inch zipper scar from my bellybutton down.

      But I never looked sick or lost hair, though I did lose a little weight from not being able to eat solids for almost a week. They took some lymph nodes that looked iffy out in the surgery but because they were fine when they biopsied them I never had to follow up with chemo or radiation. If someone is able to get laparoscopic surgery quickly and then has no evidence of disease afterwards, the outward impact can be pretty minimal. The psychological effects, though…!

  22. evens*

    Honestly, I think the coworker is a liar. It’s possible that he’s not, but he’s “not telling his family”? He’s telling someone who’s out of the office for awhile? He doesn’t have any visible physical symptoms of either chemo or abdominal surgery?

    OP, I think you need to just forget about this “revelation.” If it’s true, he’s obviously doing fine and you don’t need to make exceptions for him. If it’s not true, then he’s a manipulative POS and definitely needs to be called on his bad work habits. That doesn’t mean you confront him — I wouldn’t — but don’t give him a pass. If he really needs accommodations, it’s not your place to seek them for him.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      I kind of feel like he’s a bit manipulative whether his dx is true or not. “I have a potentially deadly illness, & even though we’re not especially close, you’re the only one I’m telling.” Is essentially the message. She is neither his confessor nor her psychologist & does not need the burden of his secret, which also sounds like she ends up covering for him without anyone else knowing what’s going on.

      1. pancakes*

        One practical solution to feeling that way is to not “cover for him.” Feeling that someone is trying to manipulate you doesn’t oblige you to go along with what you imagine they want.

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          True, but that doesn’t stop it from being manipulative or making the LW feel like she’s being put in a bad situation.

          1. pancakes*

            No, but it does minimize the impact on her life, which seems to be the best that can reasonably be expected. She can’t turn back the clock and avoid him telling her.

      2. KH*

        This hits the nail on the head! It’s a sketchy thing to do to someone, even if he’s 100% telling the truth.

    2. Sloan Kittering*

      See, I think OP’s suspicion that this guy is a liar is pushing her to respond in unusual ways to this situation. That part isn’t as important as just re-setting healthy boundaries and redirecting performance issues to the team, not taking them on herself. Ideally it doesn’t matter whether he lied, stretched the truth, or is in fact sick. The point is OP needs to exit this situation and refocus on her own needs and priorities.

      1. Antilles*

        This is way too much emotional labor and work-related effort for OP to take on, regardless of the actual reality of how sick he is or was or wasn’t.

      2. Despachito*

        I think you touched a very important aspect here.

        Sometimes we think that we are responsible for something but we really aren’t. If I wanted to speculate about why, it may be because we have been groomed to do this (it’s a women’s thing to be compassionate and to do emotional labor for other people, right?) , or that we just are kind and decent people and assume we certainly have this or that obligation towards other people.

        Hypothetically – another person at OP’s place – perhaps one more callous, perhaps one with more clearly cut boundaries – might feel completely differently. “So, Fergus told me he is terminally ill. How sad, poor Fergus. But life happens, and fortunately Fergus is not my relative or friend, and there is virtually nothing I can do so I am not going to lose my sleep over it. ”

        My point is that it is more likely that this other person will possibly feel less resentful towards Fergus for dumping his load on them because they are less invested in Fergus’s case and have less expectations from themselves as to “I think I should be a good coworker/person so I should do or feel X.”

    3. pancakes*

      I hope you’ll read the other comments, most of which are thankfully far more sensible than this. The coworker’s relationship with his family, whatever it may be, is not the letter writer’s responsibility to sort out, or even understand. Fwiw, I did not lose my hair during my first round of chemo when I had breast cancer years ago. It didn’t sap my energy, either. I continued going on long, brisk walks and bike rides, swimming, etc., throughout. I also took the subway home from one of the multiple surgeries I had to clear the margins after my initial lumpectomy. It is extremely misguided to think you can understand the nuances of someone’s health at a glance.

      1. Gerry Keay*

        There’s more to the story than just the diagnosis though. He could be telling the complete truth about his dx and be lying to OP about who else he told, with the goal of getting OP to cover for his work without OP feeling like they could speak up to complain about it (ie, exactly what is happening).

        1. pancakes*

          Yes, he could be. If she stops covering for his work she needn’t devote any more energy to trying to discern whether he was truthful about his diagnosis. She doesn’t need to get to the bottom of his medical history to stop covering for him.

      2. evens*

        >I hope you’ll read the other comments, most of which are thankfully far more sensible than this.

        That’s pretty unkind, pancakes. I said I wouldn’t confront him, but also stop making it OP’s problem. I didn’t say I “understand the nuances of someone’s health at a glance.” His story doesn’t add up and it’s impacting OP’s mental heath and ability to do her job. She needs to be fair to herself and her company and loop in her manager with the ways in which his bad work is impacting her. His cancer/lying shouldn’t be her burden, whichever one it is.

        1. pancakes*

          You said, “He doesn’t have any visible physical symptoms of either chemo or abdominal surgery,” which is quite a clear statement that you expect either of these to be visible to coworkers. They are not invariably visible to coworkers. I don’t at all agree that it’s unkind to point this out.

    4. DataGirl*

      I am also suspicious of this coworker, but not because he didn’t tell his family. I’m a cancer survivor and a surprising number of people in my support group do not tell their family, especially their kids, because they don’t want to worry them.

      1. Sloan Kittering*

        Yes, it doesn’t actually surprise me that someone struggling with something shocking goes to a random person to process. I have been there. But that doesn’t mean that if you’re the random person, you’re required to take it on full time – it’s a kindness to be present and compassionate in that conversation, but it’s also totally appropriate to redirect them to someone more prepared to manage the issue long term, and not take it on as your new crusade for life.

      2. evens*

        You’re not wrong, DataGirl. However, as a cancer survivor myself, I’ve never seen someone not tell their family (I’m not saying you’re wrong; it’s just my experience). However, I’ve known a couple of people personally who have lied about having cancer. I guess that’s where I’m coming from. A feeling of personal betrayal!

        1. DataGirl*

          I haven’t dug in to ask people specifically if they told no one in their family, or if they just limited who they told. Mostly I see people saying they have chosen not to tell their kids/parents because they don’t want to worry them, but they could be telling a spouse.

          Personally I waited to tell my kids and parents until I had a treatment plan, so there was about a month when only me and my spouse knew, but I did eventually tell them.

    5. Hrodvitnir*

      Oh hey, I’m going to go through this thread and be reactive to people making statements about what people with cancer look like!

      I had a large tumour removed from my bowel just under a year ago (along with ~1/3 of my bowel), then I had 6 months of chemotherapy. I experienced unusually high toxicity from chemo so had to have my dose lowered multiple times. Guess what I looked like? Pretty damn normal, and I in fact gained a lot of weight. My drugs (XELOX) make the skin on your hands and feet potentially fall off, but your hair doesn’t come out and weight loss is less common than weight gain. Not all chemotherapy is the same.

      This dude also didn’t mention chemotherapy, not all cancers need chemo. (I would understand terminal to mean actually at a terminal stage, but it may have been *potentially* terminal and he misunderstood.)

      I agree with your conclusion though.

      1. evens*

        Yeah, my cancer had me looking pretty…cancer patient-like. Except weight gain. I guess many women gain weight when they have breast cancer, interestingly enough. I’m not saying just because he has his hair he’s lying, I’m just saying that his story is pretty suspicious. The fact that he doesn’t LOOK like a cancer patient is just one data point, not the whole thing. And you’re totally right — not all cancers need chemo, and in fact a “terminal” cancer might be less likely to need chemo, especially right at first.

  23. Lucy*

    Just a note that you can absolutely have stage four cancer (that is, cancer that has metastasized, aka terminal cancer) and still be on an even trajectory for many years, and look perfectly healthy from the outside. It does not mean that you’ve necessarily made the jump to palliative care, as the letter writer assumes — you might instead be managing the cancer as you would a chronic illness, until the methods you’re using to manage it ultimately fail. With the advent of targeted drugs and other cancer treatments, chemo sometimes never needs to be broached. All that said, if you’re managing stage four cancer — which again can happen over the course of years — you likely still will have to have regular doctors visits, monthly or quarterly scans (which are incredibly stressful!), side effects from the meds, healthcare logistics, etc.

    All to say, I think it costs nothing to believe your coworker is telling the truth and support him in the limited way a coworker can — which is largely treating him with grace, cutting him a lot of slack, and keeping the details he has confided in you in mind before you make trouble for him at work.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      Treating with kindness and grace, yes, giving the benefit of the doubt, yes, but I don’t think OP has to cover for this coworker forever on an illness he apparently hasn’t disclosed to his workplace. OP doesn’t need to secretly shoulder his workload and not mention this to the boss. That is too much.

      1. Lucy*

        If the dropping-of-balls is indeed affecting OP, then Alison’s advice is on the money. Treat it as a work issue, but with more tact than usual. That said, doesn’t sound like the coworker is burdening OP with any additional conversations at all, seeking support from her or trying to “draw her in” to discussions about his condition, and has indeed not brought it up since. Meaning the amount of fretting his initial disclosure has created is probably disproportionate to what, if any, emotional labor or effort OP will have to actually exert.

    2. Engineer with Breast Cancer*

      I totally agree. I go to the oncologist twice a month and have quarterly scans. I also have tiredness from just day to day meds. I have appointments to deal with side effects as well. It’s not all visible on the outside.

  24. Sloan Kittering*

    My suggestion to OP is that just because someone wants to draw you into their situation, it doesn’t mean you just have to accept that. I understand that to a kind person, hearing that someone is struggling without a support network is an automatic call to action – but this is a coworker, not even a close friend from the sound of it, and in this situation I think you would have been totally within the realm of loving kindness to decline to be this guy’s major source of support. You can say, “oh I’m so sorry, here’s some contact info for an EAP/I really think you need to tell our boss/I can’t be keeping this secret for you” and still be loving and supportive.

    1. anon for this*

      This. I have a distant colleague who says all sorts of bizarre things that don’t really match up with reality, seems to believe them when he says them, and then can’t figure out why people avoid him. It used to drive me up the wall, but at some point I decided that if it affects my work, I focus on how; if it doesn’t and it’s bad enough to require a neurologist, it’s up to people in charge of his work to lay out the problems and help him find his way to a neurologist.

    2. Despachito*

      Yes, this is spot on.

      And I think it is useful thing to learn – not to be unkind, but just to be aware of one’s own boundaries.

  25. bee*

    I don’t have any opinion about his symptoms (or lack thereof) but the whole “I’m only telling you, not even my family” raises big red flags for me. Alison’s advice is right, and you should treat him professionally, but I would try to disengage personally as much as you can. Sick or not, that’s too much of a burden to put on a colleague, and not something you should have to deal with.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      I agree. I’ve had people I wasn’t especially close to dump really personal information on me, & it’s a crappy place to be. (Especially when I was a freshman in high school, & a girl who just happened to sit next to me told me some very disturbing things about her uncle. This was years before kids were really told how to handle that sort of thing, & I had no idea what to do, besides feel sorry for her.)

    2. Daisy Gamgee*

      Yes, this. And I find myself wondering: LW, are you the only person whose work is affected by your coworker’s, or does his performance affect several people but as far as you know he told only you about this illness? That difference could have an impact on the pressure of this situation, although of course either way this needs to be pared down to what you need to do your job.

  26. generic_username*

    This is so much to put on a coworker…. He told her BEFORE (or instead of) telling family and friends?!?! So unhealthy and a clear lack of boundaries…. And over chat?!

    Alison’s response is spot-on. I’d say to him that while you feel for him, you need him to talk to your mutual manager and request accommodations of some sort if this illness is impacting your work. This sucks all around, but it’s not on LW to shoulder it all.

  27. Bobtail Squid*

    Just to echo a lot of others here — I know when things like this happen, it’s natural to crave an explanation, but it could be a lot of things, you know? My foster-dad was diagnosed with “terminal” cancer when I was a teenager, but then managed to beat it; both my aunt and my grandfather managed to outlive serious illnesses by about a decade longer than anyone thought they would; I myself have a rare illness that is fatal for some people but mostly-fine for others (I’m lucky enough to be in the latter category!) (and, oh, by the way, have _gained_ weight during many of my treatments, even some that people stereotypically lose weight during). Medical diagnoses change all the time, things you as the patient thought were true on one day can turn out to be deeply incorrect the next, it’s astonishingly difficult to keep track of who knows what and who wants updates on what and etc.

    I know it’s hard, but as Alison said, focus on how his work is affecting your work, and try to let everything else go.

  28. Burger Bob*

    The medical stuff isn’t necessarily as weird as it seems. It’s possible that it was originally thought to be “terminal” but turned out it wasn’t and they really did catch it early. It’s also possible that it truly is terminal, eventually. Stomach cancer can be pretty nasty, but sometimes stage 4 cancers, while incurable, can play out very, very gradually. Remission can sometimes last much longer than expected (and “remission” sometimes just means not currently worsening). Not everybody reacts to chemo drugs in the same ways with the same side effects, and not everybody uses the same drugs to treat their cancers. Everyone’s cancer is different.

    That said, it’s incredibly weird to me that he told JUST YOU and nobody else when it doesn’t even sound from the letter that the two of you are particularly close friends. Something is strange here, regardless of whether the medical stuff is real. I would think you can treat him just like you would any other coworker at this point. If his work performance issues are something you would normally address with a coworker, feel free to do so. If they’re something you would normally address with a manager, feel free to do so. If the manager steps in and talks to him about the issues, it’s on your coworker at that point to choose whether to disclose any relevant medical issues that may be at play. But it sounds like there’s no reason for you to have to bring up the medical stuff at all at this point. You can just treat him as you would any other coworker.

    1. londonedit*

      Sometimes people find it easier to confide in people who aren’t so close to them. People might tell their hairdresser all about their husband’s affair, but as far as their parents and sister are concerned there’s absolutely nothing of note happening in their life whatsoever. They might feel like an outsider wouldn’t judge them as much, or they might feel like a colleague is a ‘safe’ person to confide in without the emotional baggage that would come with telling a family member. Maybe this person was testing out telling someone about it before they made a big announcement to their family – or maybe they really weren’t going to tell their family. Some people don’t when it comes to things like this, or they might just tell their partner and the two of them keep it secret from everyone else. It might not be the right way of going about things from their family’s point of view, but sometimes it’s the choice a person makes.

  29. I edit everything*

    “Hey, Coworker. I’m really glad you’re doing better. Now that your health is under control, can we talk about balls A, B, and C, which seem to be hitting the floor a lot recently? I don’t have room in my own work to keep picking them up, so I need you to be better about staying on top of your own work. Also, I’m going to ask you not to share your health information with me any more. If you need someone to talk to, our EAP or a therapist would be a much better choice. Thanks. Again, I’m glad you’re well and made it through all that stress. See you at the staff meeting later.”

    1. Despachito*

      I would definitely say the first half, but saying the part starting with “Also, I’m going to ask you not to share your health information with me any more.” seems to me a bit unkind at this stage . But I think it would absolutely be worth addressing if he has problems next time and confides in OP again. (In such a case I’d say “I am truly sorry but if you want to do something work-wise, I am not the right person to go to, our manager is, so please go tell her”)

  30. BoredAmoeba*

    If he wanted/needed concessions at work, he would have said something. He wants to be treated as though everything is fine, so address his work as though you didn’t know this. I’m also curious if he told you specifically because he knew you would be the person to call him out on his shortcomings, but would give him a pass. I’m also willing to bet you aren’t the only one he’s told, he’s just been very careful to limit it to people who will keep it quiet out of respect so he gets free passes but no one knows other people know.
    Very shady.

    1. Meep*

      Tbh I wondered this as well, but I am also a very jaded person who has seen people at their worst more often than at their best.

  31. SofiaDeo*

    As a person who retired early due to a cancer diagnosis that until recently had poor outcomes, I hope I can offer some insight. Hearing the “C word” puts enormous stress on one mentally. Even “waiting for biopsy results” will leave one a nervous wreck. And I was a healthcare professional with an oncology background; I was gobsmacked twice . The first biopsy was “cell changes” necessitating minor surgery and followup for 5 years which generally indicated everything was caught in time and no cancer grew back. Years after that I did develop a different cancer, so went through this twice.

    IDK if you had shared with this person before, your history of knowing people who died from stomach cancer or are just generally a caring person, but IMO that is why this person told you.

    Up until recently, many many cancers had a worse prognosis. I was told I would likely die within 5 years (at that time, 50% probability), and then new tech drugs hit the market. I am still alive 10 years later, and can still manage most activities of daily living.

    I also “don’t look ill”. The less harsh newer treatments/better management & monitoring of older therapies, mean many cancer patients don’t necessarily look as ill as previously.

    The big issue is his inability to work. I agree that this is what to focus on, and to report to your boss.

    1. LTR/FTP*

      Yes, all of this!!!! Having cancer is a total mindf*ck. I couldn’t do a thing after getting my diagnosis. And it’s changed everything about my mental health. There’s a reason there’s an entire phase of cancer treatment called “survivorship” — even if you’re in remission you’re still dealing with the situation.

      Not an hour goes by that I don’t think about my diagnosis. And it’s been two years. It’s ALWAYS there.

  32. Almost Empty Nester*

    I think you need to behave as your colleague has asked…he doesn’t want to talk about it, and I would accommodate that request and put his illness out of my mind. Treat him as he expects your other colleagues to treat him, as if nothing has happened. So the work issues are just that…work issues. Handle them as you normally would if you didn’t know what you know.

  33. Meep*

    I sympathize with you, OP, and understand why you are hesitant to believe. There really are some horrible people out there who have faked illnesses – especially cancer – for attention or personal gain. I don’t think it makes you a bad person to have that earworm of doubt. I once had someone I thought was a friend fake being in a coma. Her “brother” told me using her phone that she was comatose on the couch and the doctors weren’t sure she would ever wake up. As a thirteen-year-old, it was a lot to unpack. I didn’t want to call her out for lying, because it was serious, but it just couldn’t possibly add up to make sense. What she wanted from me? Literally a $5 doll. It is still traumatizing to this day and as much as I hate it, I will always be wary of people confiding in me about their extreme illnesses*. I don’t like it, but at least I keep it to myself.

    Right now you have good reason to doubt him. Especially since it sounds like he is taking advantage of you. However, I agree with others. Act like he didn’t tell you and stop treating him with kids’ gloves.

    *Colds, flu, broken bones, chronic illnesses, I don’t have this vitriolic reaction. It is mostly cancer, which sucks because my mother had cancer (and beat it).

  34. B. Wayne*

    LW needs to give the entire cancer business a rest and get it behind her. The work performance yes, but the medical business is not her business really. My neighbor has cancer and has been treated for some time now. He’s as healthy and active as any 75yo person could be. You’d never think “cancer”. A bald, emaciated cancerous appearance does not happen to every patient!

    Who knows, perhaps the fellow went to the doctor with stomach issues and blew it all out of proportion. And even if there was an operation, laparoscopic surgeries are all but outpatient with a few days rest. Concentrate on performance and everything else is an HR issue (IF an HR issue!) that LW does not need to contribute to.

  35. TCHR*

    I’m in the EXACT same situation however it’s a manager who has told me (HR) that he is terminal 6-8 months but has only told our boss his cancer is back and he has a good prognosis.

    It’s weighing heavily on me as HR and as his friend. I’m struggling on whether to tell our boss so we can plan for all outcomes or keep managers confidence and request for privacy because he wants to keep working till the end and I want to respect that. I’d like to believe our boos wouldn’t terminate him or push him out but I understand managers fears.

    It’s a terrible burden. I feel for you LW and I appreciate Alison’s feedback and to see what others say. Hang in there.

  36. cryptid*

    I offer zero opinion or thoughts on the performance aspect of this, but I did want to offer re: cancer that I have a stomach cancer and have never looked sick. My specific cancer is pretty indolent and I certainly would never have described it as “terminal”, but I’m also a medical person and I can imagine a non-medical person hearing the diagnosis would jump to the worst case scenario. I agree that a long weekend to recover sounds suspicious, but just wanted to affirm that at least some people don’t look sick who are. (I’ve been through treatment and hope to get the all clear in February, when it was found last September, so the timeline itself doesn’t raise too many alarms for me either.)

    1. SofiaDeo*

      There have been so, so many decades of poor outcomes with the various cancers that IMO it will take a few more decades before people don’t immediately panic. Earlier testing, more sensitive testing, targeted therapies, better nutritional/emotional/financial support, compared to decades ago will eventually change perceptions (I hope) as well as outcomes. But at this point in time, hearing the C word is difficult.

  37. Lady_Lessa*

    About not telling family and employer. That actually happened to me. I just started a new job, replacing a retiring chemist. My supervisor didn’t tell anyone how serious his health was, (he had both an autoimmune disorder and cancer), he died less than a month after I started.

    My new supervisor started about 1.5 months after I did.

    I hope that this never happens to anyone else.

  38. Berin*

    I don’t have any opinions to add, but wanted to note that this is GREAT advice from Alison, and is also pretty applicable to a lot of different situations. Nice work on this one.

    OP – this sounds like a frustrating situation; I hope you send in an update!

  39. North Wind*

    I agree it makes the best sense to move forward without speculation as to what actually happened with the co-worker, but to me the biggest red flashing light of the story is the co-worker dumping such a personal and weighty piece of information on OP while letting her know she was the only one, of personal and professional folks in his life, he was telling. This feels seriously creepy and boundary-violating to me; it’s just off and inappropriate. I’m sure I could behave appropriately and professionally toward the person, but internally I would have serious misgivings about him.

    Might I share or even over-share personal info in a time of crisis? Absolutely, of course, of course; I’m sure I have done in less dire circumstances. But make a conscious decision to tell one and only one non-personal acquaintance in my life and let them know they are the sole receiver of life-and-death information? This I don’t understand. Some sort of boundaries would need to be set.

  40. Engineer with Breast Cancer*

    I have incurable cancer, so I finally feel qualified to leave my thoughts here! At least someone will benefit from my diagnosis.

    First of all, I agree with Alison on how you need to address the issue. If your work is not directly affected, then that’s your managers job to, well, manage the ill coworker. It can be frustrating to see the guy not do the work you think he should be doing, but it’s not your job to manage him.

    If your work is directly affected, you can talk to him. Putting myself in his shoes, I know that my illness and medication side effects are impacting my work. It’s not a secret to me to just acknowledge the fact. He may not react well, though, from the comment that “he told me he was in remission and everything was great and he didn’t want to talk about it anymore”. In that case, you should give it a little time (3 weeks?) after the talk before going to your manager. He may react badly, and then enact change. But I would just put it out there that you’re getting negatively impacted, as if he doesn’t have cancer, since he said he didn’t want to talk about it.

    I think that it would be nice if you could give him a little bit more charity. I agree that it’s not great that he told you and then basically said you have to keep this is a secret indefinitely. That pulls you into the closet with him. However, the diagnosis time is overwhelming, and he may have needed to go to someone that was not a high stakes social relationship (like a significant other or other family). It would have been good if that person were some sort of counselor, but you can’t turn back time and tell him to get counsel.

    Also, you could give him a little bit more charity about looking sick. I have advanced cancer, but I don’t look sick. I have my hair and my complexion looks great. My chemobrain hasn’t affected my speech pattern, so I don’t sound any different. I can eat just about anything (except for the big ones that affect the metabolism of my drug, like grapefruit and pomegranate), although I want to wait on the sushi and other raw foods until I get more white blood cells back. Yet inside I always feel tired and a little sluggish, which obviously affect how efficiently I can do things. I hate the assumption if I don’t have any outward symptoms of being sick, then my illness can be called into question. That denial and other types of denial have been the number one social constraint I’ve dealt with.

    Please see study Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer: A Qualitative Analysis of Physical, Psychological, and Social Sequelae .
    It’s about metastatic breast cancer, but I think the lessons can apply to others as well.

  41. Rosie*

    I have a relative who is living with a terminal illness, and you wouldn’t know it just by looking at her. For now, the medications she’s on have been effective at keeping her stable, and her side effects are minimal. She recently retired (because of her age, not her health) and up until then she was working full-time with only occasional time off for doctor’s appointments and treatments.

    That said, her illness is still terminal, there is no cure, and it will eventually worsen in the probably-not-too-distant future. “Terminal” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “on their deathbed” – there are treatments that can significantly improve a terminal patient’s quality of life without actually curing the disease.

  42. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

    It definitely wasn’t fair for him to dump that on you and then tell you that you were essentially the only person who knew. I can understand (goddess can I…) the urge to tell someone that you’re going through a terrifying thing but not want your close ones to know – it’s still an unfair burden to drop on another.

    Especially when they’ve got their own emotional burdens to deal with (good tip for life: assume everyone else has struggles of their own).

    I can also understand how much of a strain this has put on you.

    Advice then: if you can, and granted this ain’t easy, forget he ever said anything about his medical problems. Don’t try to analyse them, whether he recovered or didn’t, none of that – your own life is a higher priority.

    At work, if he’s really dropping the ball and putting a work burden on you it’s perfectly acceptable to tell him that there’s a limited time to you picking up the slack and if he needs accommodations he really has to speak to his manager soon.

    1. Despachito*

      “if you can, and granted this ain’t easy, forget he ever said anything about his medical problems. Don’t try to analyse them, whether he recovered or didn’t, none of that – your own life is a higher priority.”

      This is a great advice!

  43. anonymous73*

    Am I the only one who thinks he’s full of crap? Even if he’s sick, he’s using that to manipulate OP to overlook his work ethic. You do not lay this on a colleague and tell them that they are the only one you’ve told. If your illness is going to affect your work productivity, you have a conversation with your boss. Even if he was telling the truth, the way he went about everything is not okay and I wouldn’t trust him anymore. Focus on how his lack of work is affecting your ability to do your job, and don’t let him manipulate any further into helping him.

    1. SofiaDeo*

      Oh, I agree with you that his work behavior shouldn’t be enabled. While I overreacted at work a few times initially before telling anyone, I did go back after I was comfortable telling my diagnosis/saying goodbye, and apologized to those few. It’s one thing to initially do something bizarre when first hit with a diagnosis/going through early shock, but “refusing to talk about it” after all this is indeed a crap move. He is likely still having psychological issues but just because I recognize someone has a mental health issue, doesn’t mean I want to continue to have to deal with that persons’ issues at work.

  44. Out & About*

    There could be the option of the coworker might still be terminal but are now treating the OP like everyone else – pretending things are fine. This could be why they are emotionally distant. It’s easier to omit than actively lie.

    OP this can be a traumatic thing to process, lie or not. A therapist might be better equipped to help you have coping mechanism versus venting to family who may feed into the anxiety. You won’t be able to overcome the work issues if the overall situation continues to make you anxious (ie the fear of him dropping dead and you being the only one to know why).

    Enjoy your new born <3!

  45. kiki*

    Some people get really panicky about any sort of diagnosis and/or some doctors are really bad at conveying what’s going on. It’s totally possible this guy had received a stomach cancer diagnosis, which can be terminal, but his case was not and he didn’t really understand that for a while and is now embarrassed he overreacted. Some people also just don’t show signs of illness. It’s really not for LW to judge.
    That being said, LW should bring concerns about coworker’s performance to their manager. Especially since coworker says he’s in remission now and hasn’t brought his illness up again with anyone, I feel like it’s more than fair for LW to go to their manager to address his performance. Bringing up performance concerns with a manager isn’t tattling or mean, it’s just a manager’s job to handle things like this. If this coworker still needs accommodations, it’s not fair for him to ask for coworkers to secretly be picking up his slack indefinitely. Often, managers can offer better accommodations and solutions than coworkers can .

  46. Sled dog mama*

    As someone who works in cancer care(radiation therapy) you’d be amazed the range of people I see with very dire prognoses. There are some who come in moaning in pain and I recall one very memorable gentleman who was coming in for treatment to bone mets (so generally very painful and he had a lot of them) who came in one Friday and said “I’ll be back in 10 days, I’m driving to Montana to go fly fishing with my buddies while we still can” he went on for almost 2 years like that, and outwardly you wouldn’t have guessed he was anywhere near that sick.
    Stomach cancer is a very serious diagnosis and usually not caught early because there’s lots of room in the abdomen for things to grow unnoticed. It’s possible that he heard stomach cancer and immediately jumped to terminal diagnosis, it’s possible his doctor prepared him for the worst and he shared before knowing. Cancer is a scary word and even with everything I know if I was diagnosed with any form I can’t say my first thought would be anything other than “so this is what is going to kill me”

  47. Emotional Support Care’n*

    Ugh. The “Worst Case Scenario” co-irkers. I’m related to a few of those. No matter what their diagnosis is, no matter how the doctor lays it out, their ears and brain translate it to the worst possible outcome. Telling my grandmother about anything was horrible because she would latch on to the WCS unless she thought there was some tangible benefit to *her* (I.e., literally me in a lawsuit against a company that had hit me in traffic and permanently damaged my spine – she overheard me discussing first settlement offers with my attorney and got it in her head that was what I was actually getting and felt the entire family needed to know my “good fortune”, complete with my number so they could borrow money that I didn’t even have). To my grandmother, every papercut was disfiguring and every ailment was certain demise. She had acid reflex: oh, the doctor told her she was dying. No, I was there, he said she needed to stop eating X because it triggered her acid reflux. Oh, well he told me if I keep eating X, it’ll make me die. No, he said if you keep eating X, you’ll keep throwing up, causing dehydration and wear away at your esophagus and dentures. YOU jumped to the grave willingly. *insert dirty look here from little old lady that couldn’t reach me*

    I think that in this case, co-irker heard the Big C and panicked. He wanted a feminine person to be vulnerable with who was outside of his usual circle to have that scared irrational moment to be vulnerable with, while not having to tell the full truth. He chose you, which was dishonest and gross on multiple levels. He lied to you. He lied to you, his co-worker. He lied to you, his co-worker, who is a woman that he tried to make a female emotional dumping ground for his fears. He did all of that while you were prepping for your own medical necessities. To add insult to injury, instead of coming back and saying “hey, they were wrong, I’m going to be okay” (a graceful, face-saving way to make things right), he is ignoring that he told you anything and is giving you work problems that could be general or could be because hey, he did in fact have the Big C and he’s actually needing support (not you, I’d recommend therapy or a targeted support group regardless of what had happened previously) to kind of process all of the Big Scary Stuff he’s gone through.

    I’m sorry you were used as an emotional dumping ground. That’s not fair.

    1. Kitry*

      This comment is pretty unkind towards the co-worker. There’s no evidence that he lied, and no evidence that there was any kind of malicious plot to take advantage of OP.

  48. Moira Rose*

    Just for reference, if you ranked every type of cancer from most to least deadly, my cancer would be in the bottom 10% (i.e. among the least deadly), and *still* the surgery to address it knocked me on my ass for a week. Again, just for reference.


    I don’t think the co-worker tried to manipulate the LW to cover for him or look the other way while he drops balls. If that was the case why would he choose the one co-worker who was going out on maternity leave, and therefore wouldn’t even be around to cover for him at work anyway? And then as soon as she comes back two months later (when she actually could maybe cover for him) he tells her all is fine and he doesn’t want to talk about it? That doesn’t add up with someone using the LW to help him get away with slacking at work.

    More likely, the fact that she was leaving for a while made her a safe person to get things off his chest, rather than friends and family he would be facing everyday. Now she’s back, he is not harping on it and wants things back to normal.

    Focus on his work.

  50. lb*

    Honestly it’s the behavior ahead of the surgery I find most disconcerting. The recovery can be explained (maybe the tumor was benign, maybe they were able to extract it via throat & the actual surgery wasn’t too invasive… etc) but it’s the “I’m only telling you this” stuff that makes this ooky. Why are you laying that on a co-worker, even one you really like?

    1. Morning Flowers*

      Yeah, that’s the part that jumped out at me too! “I’m not even telling my family, just you!” is the part that I think tips all this over into skeezy for me. I’ve had and seen enough medical conditions to know treatment and recovery can vary *wildly* and it might all be true … but IMO, even if every word this guy ever said is true, he STILL behaved badly just from how he treated and is treating LW.

  51. inaudible*

    If coworker’s dropping balls is affecting OP and OP needs to talk to him, I think it’s helpful to remember that even if he needs help, it isn’t fair for him to lean solely on OP for that. He needs to find a way to ask the boss to help manage this more fairly across the team if. Could be worth it for OP to point this out when speaking to coworker. And of course if this doesn’t resolve things, totally fair for OP to ask boss how to handle it. Can still maintain coworker’s privacy. (To be honest, I am skeptical, too, but probably would keep that to myself for the time being.)

  52. Karia*

    I’m going to echo that chemo and cancer treatment doesn’t always mean ‘looks sick’. And ‘terminal’ doesn’t always mean ‘immediately’. I have had a relative who got that diagnosis and lived another ten years. Not because they were lying, or exaggerating or hypochondriacal, but because cancer is an uncertain diagnosis and many treatments can be successful at prolonging life / causing remission, even when things seem hopeless.

    I think you really need to detach from his illness and neutrally talk to your boss about the *impact* of his work on yours. If it’s due to illness, he can get needed accommodations. If not, it’s a performance issue that’s on your boss to manage.

  53. Anat*

    This is indeed puzzling, but fortunately, you don’t really have to figure out what’s going on. He told you he was in remission, everything was great, and he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Take him at his word, and start treating his work issues as normal work issues. If he brings it up again at some point in the future, you can tell him he really needs to talk to boss about formal accommodations.

  54. Sparkles McFadden*

    It looks as if you’ve taken ownership of an issue that isn’t yours to address. You’re putting pressure on yourself to solve a problem you cannot solve. It doesn’t even matter if the coworker’s health issues are real or not.

    In the case of people who are having surgery etc., a boss would discuss work coverage, expected return etc. If any employee is not handling the work load, the manager should address it then.

    As a coworker, your responsibility is even less than that. If this person isn’t delivering on things that you need in order to do your own work, talk to your manager about that…and just that. Why your coworker isn’t delivering on time is irrelevant. A good manager will figure out how to address your work-related issue while supporting the other employee. A bad manager won’t do any of that, but that still wouldn’t make any of this your burden to bear.

    Your coworker gave you this news and said he wasn’t telling anyone else, so I’ll echo what other commenters have said: Do your best to pretend you never heard anything about this at all. This should be easier now that the coworker circled back to say “Hey, everything is fine!” Even if you are questioning his previous report on his bad health, please believe this update, and let it go,

  55. Amethystmoon*

    I have a cousin who was both addicted to and dealing drugs. Before he got caught, he told people, including our elderly grandma, that he had cancer. He just wanted money for more drugs. It was believable because his appearance had changed from the drugs.

    I don’t see a request for money in the OP, but if there is one down the road, please think twice.

  56. sadnotbad*

    As someone dealing with a breast cancer-related issue that does not present in the ways people typically associate with breast cancer (I’m not on chemo, my surgeries are outpatient with short recovery times, I’ve not lost weight), letters like this–and there are a lot of them–make me really anxious that my coworkers think I’m faking it. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m inordinately concerned that people are going to think I’m malingering just because there’s such a pervasive cultural script of what illness/cancer looks like, and if you don’t fit that script, there’s also a weird eagerness among a lot of people to say “gotcha!” if they think they’ve spotted a liar. But it seems to me the number of cases that don’t fit the script far outnumber the number of times someone tells such a whopper of a lie. I’m sharing this just to try to help LW understand how much pressure a situation like this can cause for the person suffering. It is well and truly none of your business what is going on with his health. Please stick with the performance issues and let him go through whatever he’s going through without having his reality questioned. It doesn’t sound like he’s using the illness as an excuse for anything or even spreading the news around, bringing it up a lot, or anything like that, which is generally stuff you’d expect from attention-seekers or compulsive liars. It seems much more likely he opened up to you in a time of intense stress and fear, and that treatment has gone better than expected.

    1. Engineer with Breast Cancer*

      I’m in the same boat. I’m incurable, and people still ask if I’m really sick. So I get it. But most people are really kind and understanding, and I try to focus on those people.

    2. SofiaDeo*

      Please try not to be concerned about how others perceive anything related to your cancer. It’s true there is often a cultural concept of what cancer “looks like” and “how it affects people”. But IMO reasonable people who know you and your work will understand that those of us with some sort of disability occasionally have more “oops” moments than the average person. Those that want to create drama around mistakes aren’t worth the energy! These types would find a reason other than your disease to create unpleasantness, so try not to worry about it/let any snotty comments or actions, or eyeball rolls or whatever, affect you.

      1. pancakes*

        It’s all very well and good to say that, but the fact is that many, many, many people have very rigid ideas about what cancer looks like and how cancer patients ought to behave. There are a number of them in the comments here. Most, if not all, nonetheless think of themselves as reasonable. I didn’t tell anyone at work about my cancer diagnosis while I was in treatment besides one supervisor, and I’ve never regretted it for a moment.

  57. Seriously?*

    My husband had a kidney tumor that turned out to be cancer removed in June. He had no symptoms (they caught it when scanning for something else) and it was fully contained so no treatment other than monitoring for now on. We were very lucky. Now, he was out of work for 2 weeks. It was major surgery! So that part seems odd in this story. But not the not looking sick part.

    1. Moira Rose*

      To be fair, the long weekend recovery is what really pinged my BS-ometer as a cancer survivor myself, not the “doesn’t look sick” stuff. But then again I also didn’t tell exactly one person!! (I told the whole world, really. Your announcement may have been lost in the mail.)

  58. Essess*

    If he needs concessions, that’s for him to work out with his boss. You need to alert the boss if the work is not getting done. Anything other than that is not your concern no matter what you know or suspect about your coworker. Just state the facts of how your work is currently being impacted and let them work out what changes are needed. You don’t need to share any personal information about your coworker to the boss.

  59. Batgirl*

    OP, this isn’t your burden to take on! Sure, your colleague made it seem like yours by making you a sole confidante, but let’s treat that like the mistake it was. Being generous, it was the move of someone in such a panic they weren’t thinking straight. Even if we are being less generous it still was not the correct thing to do to you. So just reset the responsibilities here to what they should be. Let your manager know what’s getting done and what isn’t. Your colleague can say why if they want accommodations.

  60. Dr Sarah*

    ‘I feel like a horrible person. Why can’t I just believe and be happy for my colleague? Why can’t I just respect how he wants to navigate this?’

    OK, first I’m going to name the elephant in the room here: It sounds as though there is enough stuff ‘off’ here that it’s got your spidey-senses tingling and alerting you to the fact that this man might have been lying to you. I am absolutely *not* saying that this is what definitely happened; a lot of commenters have pointed out plausible scenarios that would account for everything that happened and mean that, when he dumped the ‘terminal cancer’ story on you, it was in good faith. But I’m guessing you have at least wondered whether that’s what’s going on.

    1. Dr Sarah*

      Sorry, hit ‘post’ too early!! I had a lot more to say:

      If I’ve read the situation carefully and you are in fact wondering whether he’s deliberately lied to you… well, that’s an utter mindf*ck to deal with. It’s never, ever nice to be lied to, it’s worse when it was by someone you trusted and thought you had a reasonably good relationship with, it’s worse yet when it involves bringing your emotions and your good will in wanting to support someone into play in this way, and, on top of *all* of that, you’re facing a Schroedinger’s Liar situation where you can’t even feel angry or upset about this prospect without feeling guilty over the *also* very real prospect that you’re unfairly accusing someone who has, in fact, just survived a horrible experience and really did need someone to vent to. And it is absolutely OK to feel upset and weirded out and, yes, *angry* about this.

      I don’t think there’s anything you can do about it. I think this probably is a situation where you just have to let it go. But I think it is *fine* to take a bit of time, first, to acknowledge that this is a mindf*ck and a very unpleasant thing for *you* to go through.

      It might well also be worth acknowledging that, even if we look at a best-case scenario where he genuinely did believe he had terminal cancer and turned to you for support, he still really hasn’t behaved all that well. The emotional dumping at a time of extreme stress is fairly forgiveable, the ‘don’t tell anyone else at all’ was not well thought out but is still kind of understandable… but, if this guy really did think he was terminally ill and only find out he wasn’t after he’d already got you to support him through it, then the appropriate thing for him to do would have been to send you a message of some kind letting you know the good news and thanking you for your help. The fact that he didn’t do that means that he’s been, at best, pretty thoughtless after you went out of your way to help him.

      Again, I don’t think there’s actually anything you can do about this without risking it backfiring. I think you have to let it go. But I think that, cancer or no cancer, it is fine *for you* to feel annoyed and upset about how he has handled this.

      So… after all that, my advice would be to feel those feelings, acknowledge them, and acknowledge to yourself that they’re actually justified. That is surprisingly powerful. And *then*, only after that, accept that this was a shitty episode that you can’t do anything about, and move on.

      And then address his work problems with your boss if they’re impacting you, because that’s a thing you have the right to do entirely independently of the whole maybe-cancer episode. Whether you’re sympathetic over his cancer or angry over his behaviour, or both of the above, that doesn’t change the fact that if his work issues are impacting you then that’s something you can take to your boss. If you feel the need to run this past someone impartial to be sure your emotions aren’t affecting your wish to discuss this with your boss, by all means do so. But it *is* fine to treat his work issues on their own merits, or demerits, regardless of what else has gone on.

  61. Jack Straw from Wichita*

    People like this OP are why I take selfies in the hospital. I’m petrified that no one will believe me abd will think I’m faking it. Spoiler Alert: I’m not and stressing about it makes me feel sicker.

    I have cancer. I will likely have it the rest of my life. It’s incredibly slow growing. It’s not one that responds to chemo. I have GAINED weight from my medication. I haven’t lost my hair. But I am fatigued more than I ever thought was possible outside of being pregnant when I’m growing another human being inside my body….

    That said, I’m covering my responsibilities at work. But please PLEASE stop equating having cancer with the bald gaunt image of “a cancer patient”

    1. DrRat*

      I get your frustration, as my late hubby didn’t “look disabled” and we ran into a lot of issues as a result. But please remember that in the OP’s case, she never suspected him of faking until there were a lot of other red flags.

      All the best to you!

    2. ECHM*

      Thank you, Jack Straw! My husband has a whole slew of health issues and periodically I will sneak a picture of him in the hospital too just in case … One day my boss came to visit him prior to a medical procedure (I was with him as well) and not only was it a super-kind gesture, but also secretly a relief to me that I could prove I was where I said I was …

  62. Janeric*

    Regardless of the specific details of his health, it’s not a coincidence he told someone about to be isolated from all of her colleagues and who might, before she leaves and upon her return to the office, place new boundaries around how much extra work she’s willing to do.

    1. Daffodilly*

      Exactly what raised red flags for me. He wants you to pick up his workload, but he does not want to get caught telling untruths. Even *if* it is true (and I’m skeptical!) it’s wrong for him to expect you – a brand new parent! – to bear the load alone.
      I would approach him and tell him that if he does not or cannot start carrying his own workload better, he needs to talk to the boss about accommodations. And if he won’t, you will.
      (And I’m boggled that anyone could keep cancer from the spouse. Just the expenses alone, much less surgery/meds/etc.)

  63. Former Llama Herder*

    I have some sympathy for the colleague in this letter-a month or two ago, my partner got a call from his doctor saying he should immeadietley go to the ER because some tests he’d gotten back indicated he could have cancer. Since he’d been experiencing a lot of other unexplained symptoms, my parter was really alarmed and I left work to go with him to the ER, where he tested normal, and other doctors later confirmed that going to the ER based on his test results was a huge over reaction. So, there were a couple of hours where my co-workers thought I was dealing with a big crisis, and I definetely felt a bit silly explaining it the next day. Not to say that this means your co-worker is in the right at all, but just some context that an intial diganosis isn’t always correct.

    That being said, what Allison and others have said about it being okay to bring up the performance issues sounds really right for me-if there’s additional context the boss needs when talking to your colleague, it’s on him to provide it. Congrats on the new baby!

  64. GreenDoor*

    OP, please don’t make a decision based on accommodations you’re assuming he needs. I had a co-worker whose behavior, productivity, and overall work ethic change dramatically at the start of the pandemic. We were all wondering what it was – drugs, mental illness, physical illness, domestic violence…our heads were spinning and our initial reaction was to “accommodate” him to show we cared. But my boss wisely pointed out that, at work, no matter what you’re up against, you still need to be 1) a professional and 2) an adult. If your colleague needs accommodations, HE needs to request them. And yes, that may mean he needs to disclose more info to the Organization that he’d like to, but professionals understand that this is the trade off for getting what you need.

  65. Stomach dr*

    Stomach cancer researcher here. It’s possible that the extent of surgery was downgraded or he misinterpreted it. Stomach cancer is bad. 5- year survival is less than 20% and this is because it’s rarely caught early enough for curative treatment. He “may” have googled in advance and thought he was one of the worst case scenarios. Prior to surgery patients will normally have a staging laparoscope where the surgeon goes in via a small incision with a camera to have a look around and check for metastasis or peritoneal seeding. This helps guide the extent of surgery. The extent of surgery can vary, small early stage tumours can be removed via endoscopy access carefully cut out (best case scenario). In advanced cases the entire stomach is removed. Sounds like he may have been the first case where yes, a weekend would be sufficient recovery. Also looking “sick” and bald are not really consistent with early stage diagnosis.

    1. Jack Straw from Wichita*

      I’m not sure if this is accurate for stomach cancer, but for other types of cancer, looking sick and bald aren’t even consistent with being in treatment. Not all cancers respond to chemo and/or radiation.

      The reaction by OP is why I post all over social media with pictures of me hooked up to an infusion or post-op. Both to “prove” I have cancer (don’t get me started) and to normalize that cancer patients aren’t all bald and sickly.

  66. Purple Cat*

    Wow, your coworker really sucks.
    It’s totally inappropriate to dump that emotional burden on a coworker.
    Really at this point for your own mental health you have to assume that everything he told you IS true. He was told it was terminal and surgery was easy-peasy. And as others have said, that is definitely a possibility.
    The other issue is his work underperformance. You can (and should) bring this up with your manager. He doesn’t magically get a pass with everything else.

  67. Ayla*

    Five or six years ago, my mom took me to lunch to tell me a secret. She’d found some lab results in a drawer, done some sleuthing, and learned my dad had stomach cancer. When she asked him, he just said he didn’t want to talk about it but the doctor said it was bad. He told her not to tell us kids. She did, because she thought we deserved to know.

    My point is, eventually he went away for a few days for a “business trip” that was actually surgery. By the time he came back he was acting pretty normal. They got it all, I guess, because he’s doing great. It’s never been spoken of and if my mom hadn’t told me I’d never have known.

    So he could certainly be telling the truth. But if it never happened, would you still have a problem with his work? If so, proceed the way you would have before all this happened.

    1. Daffodilly*

      My dad did a similar thing when my mom had cancer. I was away at college so he called me and told me to “act normal and pretend I didn’t know” when I came home for Christmas.
      Yeah. that was impossible since she’d *lost her hair from chemo*. I didn’t even try to pretend. And I was pissed that it was expected of me.

  68. Lobsterman*

    LW: Go nuclear. Email literally everyone – boss, boss’s boss, HR, every family member you can find. His behavior is inexcusable and cruel.

    1. SofiaDeo*

      I disagree. LW didn’t say she had any emails or other docs from him, it was spoken. If LW goes nuclear, it’s LW’s word against his. He obviously has some problems (because of all the things he has said) whether the cancer is true or not, and LW doesn’t need to join him on his drama llama ride. I don’t recommend knowingly engaging with people on their crazy train. I recommend avoiding it!

      Treat it as any work related problem, report the work affecting issues. It really doesn’t matter the cause. If it turns out he really is sick, and qualifies for some sort of ADA accommodations, that’s between him and the company.

    2. MCMonkeyBean*

      WTF, this is horrible horrible advice. OP may be vaguely wondering whether he lied, but doesn’t actually have any reason to believe that is the case and everything could have gone down exactly like he said which would make this an absolutely atrocious thing to do.

    3. Despachito*

      What…. Why would she do this? It would be awful for him if he told the truth. And if he didn’t, OP would look like some weird drama queen.

    4. MsChanandlerBong*

      This is not good advice at all. The only reason anyone from work should contact someone’s family member is if they have a medical emergency on the job or they’re planning a retirement party and want to invite the spouse or something. This person also has no idea whether her colleague is lying. If she does this, she’ll look like a total jerk and possibly damage her own reputation in the process.

  69. Divergent*

    As to why he maybe told only the OP, or only the OP at first– it’s really, really common for folks looking at big life/identity stuff that’s scary (trans people, or autistic people) to “test” telling someone who’s not particularly close to them but who they see as sympathetic and safe. If that person responds well it can make it easier to think of telling someone else. It can also be much easier to tell someone who isn’t an intimate part of your life, if you’re not ready to enter into the actual logistics and live with it every day yet. When you tell folks you interact with closely and daily, it becomes part of the air you breathe when close to them.

    Cancer can be a big scary life-changing thing. Maybe the OP was this person’s safe person to try it out on. Maybe they’ve told someone since, maybe they haven’t. None of it changes that the OP should continue to hold reasonable boundaries about work (and about further emotional sharing if it comes up), but it might help some of the commenters here understand how something like this could come about.

  70. BA*

    If his work habits are directly impacting your workload and productivity, definitely say something. Cancer or no, it is worth sharing with your boss that you’ve taken up some slack for your coworker. You don’t need to spend any of your worry on whether he’s lying or not. Just focus on job performance.

    And whether or not it is impacting your job directly, and whether or not you say something to your boss, you have the right to shut down any and all conversations like this with him in the future. It was hugely disrespectful to you, a not-close friend, especially at a time when you were preparing for the birth of your child, to put this on you. That shows terribly poor judgement on his part and you are not at all obligated to participate in these conversations again. The scripts others have shared are fantastic.

    I hope you and your baby are well and you’re enjoying motherhood!

    1. SofiaDeo*

      Yes, and his continued inappropriate communications/way of handling this are why a number of us are saying “talk to boss”. Don’t try to talk to him, don’t engage him at all about his performance issues. He’s late with work, he’s deflecting work to her, and he knows this. There is no reason to believe first speaking with him will see him responding as a normal, rational person would. He has shown prolonged, inappropriate responses to communication attempts from LW. Ignoring LW’s texts while LW was on maternity leave? Telling her he didn’t want to discuss it after LW returned to work?

      LW, you are not a horrible person. You obviously are a compassionate, caring person by thinking you should be happy he is in remission, and that you should be “understanding” of his work issues.

      But he’s not showing you the same respect back. Whether deliberately doing it to manipulate you, or as a psychological response to his disease state, it’s still an issue that is not helpful to you to continue to engage in.

      Regardless of any medical issue, there are work problems, and reporting them to your boss is ultimately a kindness to him. And it’s a kindness to yourself not to continue to have stress over this!

  71. Arcitc*

    I’m sorry but the drinking milkshakes seems to confirm his story. It’s a high in calories (which you want) but easily digestible.

  72. agnes*

    Is it a possibility for you to talk to him? Tell him that you’ve noticed his work contribution is not where it needs to be, and although you understand it might be due to his medical issues, you cannot continue to increase your own workload to make up the difference. He either needs to talk to your boss about the situation or you will have to.

  73. HannahS*

    I don’t have anything to add to the workplace part of it, but I have a few thoughts about secrets, OP.
    People don’t get to demand that you hold their burdens secretly in your heart without your consent. It’s not actually an act of friendship for someone to impromptu dump something hugely upsetting on you and then insist that you can’t tell anyone! Because it’s a secret! Confidences between close friends are a beautiful gift but friendship–especially casual workplace friendship–doesn’t allow a person to thrust an unwanted gift into your arms and then run away. That’s not ok, and you’re perfectly entitled to be mad at him for making his illness and inability to talk about it with people who can actually support him your problem right before you were about to have surgery and a baby and is continuing to behave somewhat strangely. AND you can also understand that he probably called you in a moment of panic and regrets it.

    1. Cici*

      YES! THIS! I was wondering if anyone would mention this.
      From what I understand CW did NOT ASK OP if she felt comfortable keeping a secret or was willing to be a confidant. He just dumped it on and told her “don’t tell anyone”. WTH?.
      I do not believe that we are compelled to keep everything secret, just because someone we hardly know demands it of us. Some confidences are necessary and expected, and indeed required by law. I don’t believe this falls into that category. ( Indeed some secrets are dangerous and best be told to the appropriate persons. This also doesn’t fall into that category.) Nor should we blab or gossip. While it might not be prudent to broadcast his health issues to everyone, truly not everyone’s business, but his demand that she “don’t tell anyone” doesn’t mean she is required to not tell anyone. And it was really shitty of him to just dump that on her.
      I agree w/ AAM that the focus does need to be in how his work is impacting her job and that should be discussed w/ proper management.

  74. DocQD*

    There are a lot of comments, so I don’t know if this has been addressed, but it’s totally possible to have a terminal diagnosis and also be in remission. There are types of cancer where you know with chemo you can get a remission (meaning you have no evidence of cancerous cells anywhere) but we also know it can’t be kept under control, and will absolutely come back. I have no way of knowing if that is the case here, but his story is reasonably consistent from a medical standpoint. (from my experience as a former pediatric oncologist)

  75. AnotherSarah*

    I’m sorry if this is wildly inappropriate…I had a friend die from stomach cancer last year, and another friend who has it, but whose prognosis is “very good.” What does “very good” look like? Colostomy bag for life, drastically different life, etc. My spidey sense is up for this one. I know, not everyone with cancer…but stomach cancer?

    1. Arcitc*

      She has only seen him in video chat apps. He might have a colostomy bag. You don’t know. Neither does she.

  76. Karia*

    Having read all the comments, I am slightly astonished. I have never in my life met someone who has faked a cancer diagnosis to excuse underperforming at work. But as someone with a handful of (mostly invisible) chronic illnesses, I have met many people who become suspicious and angry when an illness doesn’t follow a particular script or get better when they thought it should.

    1. Daffodilly*

      It’s not the diagnosis that is a red flag to me. It’s choosing a female coworker/acquaintance as the ONLY person they tell (not even family?!?) and expecting her to pick up his slack. And say nothing to anyone.
      I would bet money that your family and close friends know what’s up with you. I would expect that if you needed accommodations you would approach your boss for help and not expect someone at work to cover for you in secret.
      Because those are the normal ways to handle things.
      There is something very abnormal about this.

      1. Karia*

        Eh. People are not perfect. I’ve inappropriately blurted out things I shouldn’t to work acquaintances (and vice versa – not an excuse, but high pressure, long hours industry). I agree on the accommodations but he hasn’t asked her for any, and he hasn’t asked her to pick up his slack.

        I do agree that it was 100% inappropriate to put this burden on her, and if it’s true that he’s *only* told her, that’s very unusual.

        1. Despachito*

          I do not know exactly how this works in the U.S. – but is it possible he might be afraid of telling his boss for fear that once the boss learns he is ill she would kick him out to avoid paying his insurance?

    2. DrRat*

      To expand on a comment I made above, having worked in the intersection of medicine and mental health, I can assure you that faking cancer, HIV, to get social, environmental, or financial benefits is more common than you would think. I have also seen the flip side that you mention and it was frustrating beyond belief (my late hubby didn’t “look like” he needed a wheelchair at times).

      Human beings are complicated.

      If you have never seen The Act, I highly recommend it.

  77. Evvie*

    I know someone who lied about this. Not cancer, but they had a “terminal illness” that suddenly disappeared after a surgery that a) doesn’t exist and b) never needed a follow-up? (The illness itself also didn’t exist.)

    Like the LW, I had a loved one die of a (real) illness similar to the one this person “had.” They knew this and used it against me because they knew I would do whatever they asked. If the LW mentioned the loved ones’ stomach cancers to the coworker, my guess would be that’s where the idea came from.

    Oh, and I was married to my person and bought it all. I was young and naive and loved him, so you know. I even believed the “my parents don’t like to talk about it, so don’t bring it up” (not unlike “I’m only telling you, not my wife, please keep it quiet”). He did it for attention and sympathy, and when he realized it was eventually going to have to come out publicly, he “got cured.”

    As someone with chronic illnesses that, frankly, sound fake given my age and ability to power through even the worst days, my default is to believe people who say they’re sick. I do not believe this person.

    It might be worth kind of hinting around the issue with the boss and your colleagues. Get a read on things if possible. See if you can find out if other “stories” have been told. That could help guide you in handling the situation.

    And document every single time you’re screwed over by his poor work.

    Good luck. You’re dealing with something much bigger than a lie here, and it’s not easy.

  78. Emily*

    I can actually imagine hearing (or misunderstanding) a cancer diagnosis, becoming extremely agitated, and telling an almost ‘random’ coworker about it before family and friends. Especially with covid… They might not even be living with other people anyway, so remote was remote, it didn’t matter? They might have preferred to share the news with somebody who was not going to be too seriously affected by it, just to collect themselves.
    Recently I got so worried about an upsetting news that I reached out to the first person who was ‘green’ on Slack and asked if they had time to chat a little bit. They were very nice. In the end it was no big deal. I have never done that before or after, and feel a bit embarrassed (after the panic episode I apologized and promised not to bother them again – they were very gracious ).
    I wonder if OP’s co-worker just over-reacted (maybe the cancer wasn’t malignant and they misunderstood ‘terminal’ like someone said… ) and feels a bit ashamed about bringing it up again.
    The advice doesn’t change, I totally agree with Alison. OP should just proceed like the confession didn’t happen.

  79. Pyjamas*

    Asking a pregnant coworker—coping with all the uncertainties attached to childbirth—to keep a secret like this? He may or may not have had cancer but he’s definitely an asshole

  80. Olivia Oil*

    I think this is definitely a situation where the illness is not the issue – it’s the work performance. If he’s not pulling his weight, that’s what you need to address without any consideration of illness. I know that’s easier said than done, because you want to sympathetic to a colleague, but now is not the time to deal with all that ish. It seems like you are currently hinging your decision on what to do based on whether or not you believe him, but the decision shouldn’t vary either way.

    In general though, I wouldn’t be quick to dismiss someone’s illness based on how they “look”. That’s just never a good idea.

  81. Rosacoletti*

    no chemo or radiation? Hmmm. I did work with someone who faked Leukemia, even shaved their head and said it was from chemo, it was all very odd.

  82. MsChanandlerBong*

    Please don’t fall into the habit of assessing people’s health based on their appearance. I have chronic kidney failure, a history of heart attack, etc. and have been near death several times. On none of those occasions did I really look like anything was wrong with me. I felt terrible, but you wouldn’t know it unless you got up close and saw how glassy my eyes were or knew me enough to know I was much quieter and less energetic than usual. I’ve had doctors doubt me because I “didn’t look sick” and then developed life-threatening symptoms because I didn’t get treated as early as possible. You really can’t assess someone’s health by looking at them, especially if you’re not a medical professional.

  83. Jennifer Snow*

    If they were able to remove the tumor laproscopically, (via a long tube and a camera) a “long weekend” recovery isn’t far-fetched at all. Improvements to surgery over the past 20 years, particularly in the area of less-invasive surgery, have been pretty darn impressive.

  84. 1LFTW*

    Hi OP. Congratulations on your new baby! You seem like a really compassionate person and a great coworker. I’m going to come at this from a different angle than others and suggest that you make sure you’re getting the support and compassion you want your coworker to have.

    You mention that you’ve lost two people to stomach cancer specifically, and that it was brutal to watch. That may mean that you’re bringing some grief, worry, and trauma to the situation with your coworker. In your situation, I’d be waiting with dread for things to get bad, worrying about whether his choices (to work in-person, his diet, etc) are damaging his health, as well as feeling guilty about being frustrated with his underperformance. It makes sense, because you’ve seen this diagnosis play out before – twice – that you’re steeling yourself for tragedy, even though he’s since told you that the he’s in remission! and everything is great! … even as a little voice in your head is wondering why he seems like he’s doing so well, when others weren’t so lucky.

    If you haven’t had a chance to process your previous losses, please give yourself space to do so. This is an incredibly difficult situation to navigate. You say your company has wonderful benefits; if those include an EAP, that would be a great place to look for support.

    I wish you the best.

  85. Polecat*

    I have incurable stage 4 metastatic cancer, considered terminal. A few notes.
    – i’m fat. Not all cancer patients are thin and bald. Cancer patients hate when people comment on their appearance and make assumptions about their health based on their appearance. Don’t do that anymore. We talk about it a lot in my support group and it’s pretty high up on the things we hate list.
    – Terminal, as explained to me by palliative care at a leading cancer center, means that you have an incurable cancer that is going to kill you and significantly shorten your lifespan. Also referred to as advanced cancer. It does not come with a timeframe. It does not mean that you aren’t getting treatment. People with advanced metastatic cancer can live for years.
    – what you are associating the word ‘terminal’ with is hospice care. A person receiving hospice care is no longer receiving treatment for their cancer. They have either run out of treatment options or they have decided to stop receiving treatment and focus on quality of life. They are only receiving comfort care. For purposes of insurance, the doctor has to say this person has six months or less to live.
    – for whatever reason, your colleague chose to confide in you. It may be at the time he talk to you he was terrified and felt there was little hope. I fell apart when I got my diagnosis. He may regret that he chose to tell you. It’s entirely possible that he then got treatment and responded well to it, And that he regrets confiding in you about something so personal and doesn’t want to discuss it in detail with you anymore.
    – I had a genuinely evil coworker who made my life hell the year I worked with cancer before I got too sick. She asked me point-blank if I had cancer and I told her yes before I even realized what I said. I wasn’t in my right mind. I regret it to this day. Don’t make your coworker regret that he most likely confided in you without thinking it through and now wishes he hadn’t.
    – As far as his work performance, you need to just take care of yourself. If he’s at work, you should be able to expect him to perform like a competent teammate. If you have an issue with him that is materially affecting your job, talk to him about it. If he has performance issues that just bug you but don’t materially affect your job, I would let it go.

    The odds that this person is faking cancer are infinitesimal. He’s not asking anyone at work for money and he’s trying to keep it quiet. Not a lot to be gained by having you be the only person who knows, is there? People who fake an illness generally are very open about their purported illness because they are faking it for a reason.

  86. Misquoted*

    I haven’t read all of the comments, so I apologize if this is a repeat. I just want to add a data point: when my partner was being treated for cancer, he didn’t look sick at all. It wasn’t until later in his treatment that a specific type of chemo caused him to lose his hair, and he continued to work and raise his kids until the very end. He began to really look sick in the last several weeks of his life, but for the 4 years before that (while still fighting a disease that was without a doubt terminal), you wouldn’t have known he was sick.

  87. L*

    Maybe he is lying about being in remission. And feels bad for telling. And isn’t getting treatment. Does the job have benefits?

  88. DopamineDeficient*

    As someone who works in healthcare…absolutely none of your coworker’s medical situation sounds particularly fishy, except perhaps how emotionally invested in it the LW seems to be. Laparascopic surgery is miles easier to recover from than earlier methods of abdominal surgery and a long weekend sounds about right. A terminal diagnosis mostly means that unless something else gets him first, this is likely what he’ll die of no matter what he does in the meantime. If the surgery was successful and removed all the tumor that had been present, he may well be just fine for quite a while. If he’s doing other treatments in the meantime, he might just be dealing with side effects from those meds (fatigue, brain fog, nausea, irritability, etc) but ‘look’ perfectly fine. It doesn’t surprise me that he doesn’t seem that ill and it also doesn’t surprise me that if he looks fine but feels like crap, his work and attitude may have suffered.

    By all means address the impact his work is having on you. But I would set aside your concerns about his health until and unless he brings it up with you again, and afford him the grace you might want from others if you were in a similar situation.

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