updates: my coworker told me he’s hiding a terminal illness, and more

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past. Here are four updates from past letter-writers.

There will be more posts than usual this week, so keep checking back throughout the day.

1. My coworker told me he’s hiding a terminal illness

I stand by my original response on Jan 24th – I was so amazed at the reactions from your community of readers. Some made me laugh, some gave me perspective, most made me feel relieved for just getting the experience off my chest and having others reflect it back to me.

One response really stuck with me and that was a very, very strong reaction saying something to the effect of “how dare you judge what someone with cancer looks like.” To be fair, I stand by the fact that people close to me have fought cancer…I have some data points to know what fighting cancer can and does look like up close. However, that person’s response was such a good dose of perspective for me…it actually completely changed how I viewed my colleague. How DID I know? All I had was his word. Was the timing in terms of sharing the news difficult for me (weeks before the birth of my first child…)…yes. But after reading your community’s responses, I stepped away feeling more like I can choose how I want to respond here and I actually decided that I didn’t want to judge what I “thought” my colleague should look like or how I thought he should behave. I just wanted him to be well (and he said/continues to say he is) and for it NOT to impact our working relationship, as he requested.

So your community’s advice was extremely helpful in freeing me from the “OMG-ness” of working with a colleague who has a medical condition they don’t want to share. My role isn’t to judge or tell him what to do, but rather accept how he wants to handle it and support him.

I also want to share a book I read this year that I think reinforced that one person’s response. I May Be Wrong by Bjorn Natthiko Lindeblad is a monk’s reflection on the best advice he ever received: in essence, have the ability to step back from a situation, a conversation, a reaction and say “I may be wrong” three times. It is SO freeing. So freeing. While your community member delivered that message with a bit of zing, I think that’s really what they were trying to say … and they were right (… I MAY be wrong!).

Thank you for creating a space for people to safely navigate the wild and crazy world of professional relationships. You do an amazing job and while I hope I don’t have to turn to you again any time soon, I’m glad to know there is somewhere to go!

2. I’m drowning in work and don’t know if my expectations are unreasonable

In short: I recently quit, and went back to my old job!

I continued on months after sending in my message wanting to stick it out. Things got better because I learned the work dynamics more, but it was still a mess.

However, the last straw for me was when they hired two new people in our department. No discussion with me if I was higher in seniority to them, or if they would help with the work load. But I got the strong impression I would be on-boarding on top of my current workload and any new additional projects they might add. More work, no credit and definitely no more pay. That’s exactly what would have happened had I not quit within the first week of the new hires.

Fortunately enough my previous employer reached out asking if I would be interested in coming back. The pay was almost the same, better benefits, WFH, and way less stress.

When I told my old employer I’d received an offer I asked if they would like to try and retain me. I provided a list of what I’d need to stay, I made my demands high because that’s what it would have taken to keep me. Instead of simply saying they couldn’t meet my wants. They essentially sat me down and walked me line by line that I did not deserve what I was asking for on the list or deflected blame. One specifically I brought up time off in lieu of working weekends again – I’d been dismissed in my first discussion with them. In this final meeting they said “sorry if you misunderstood we could have done that.” Another was working hybrid, I got a solid no despite some other team members being fully WFH already? And the cherry on top, they added they would need to see “certain types of performance” to provide me to increase salary. I pressed on what type of performance since we had no performance structure, and was essentially told they didn’t have one and didn’t plan to put one in. A never ending cycle of more work but no performance structure for me to leverage.

It was a toxic work environment. I’m sad it didn’t work out because I loved the work I got to do, but am so much happier now.

All in all. The workload might have became more manageable due to my effort, but lack of value and respect is what drove me out.

Thank you for the advice!

3. I can’t afford to go to an event recognizing my work (#3 at the link)

A rather downbeat update on this one I’m afraid- no one in my management structure was ever able to confirm that I would be able to claim expenses to attend the gala, so I didn’t go. It was last weekend and I’ve just seen the photographs from the event- my team did end up winning a prestigious award for work I’d had a big hand in, and as predicted everyone was in black tie formal wear. I’m kicking myself a bit for not just eating the cost as I can see that lots of influential people attended that I would have loved to make contact with.

Please tell your readers how much I appreciated their support. One reader commented that it was like they were all my fairy godmothers trying to get me to the ball, and I really felt that! Also big thanks to everyone who had suggestions about where plus size people can find formal wear- there were some great resources shared in the comments!

4. What do I owe my boss after grad school? (#3 at the link)

I wrote back in May 2021 about how long I should stay in a role that I didn’t love after completing my grad degree. I thought my boss was amazing but didn’t love the work itself. My question was pretty inconsequential, but I like updates, so I figured I would send mine along.

Almost a year after I wrote into you, I accepted a new job! It’s much more closely related to my ideal career and is a great stepping stone for where I’m hoping to go next. There was an enormous learning curve, but I find my work so fulfilling, interesting, and like I’m getting to do my part to make the world a better place. My new bosses are also huge advocates for my coworkers and me, and we are treated like the experts we are. I feel like lightning struck twice for me with good bosses!

As for my former boss, as expected she handled my resignation incredibly well. She made it clear that I would be missed, but she was excited for me to start a new adventure. The best part is, she is now at a new job herself! As much as she liked our current institution, something too good to pass up fell into her lap and she’s moving to a new place with a higher title. She’s encouraged me to stay connected and made it clear she will always happily be a reference for me. I was and still am incredibly grateful I got such a good introduction into the working world. She’s genuinely an amazing boss!

Thank you for all the amazing advice you give! It has been so helpful as someone still new in my career!

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. Emily*

    I think what happened to LW #2 is yet another reason why you shouldn’t bother to try and get a counter offer from your current employer when you are leaving. It sounds like it just upset LW further when they were already drowning in work. Though it is better than the employer promising things and not delivering. I’m glad you were able to go back to your previous employer, LW. I wish you much less stress in the new year!

    1. I Am On Email*

      100% ! Especially from a current employer who hasn’t been too bothered about staff satisfaction / workload / work-life balance – it is so unlikely that they’ll see the light and suddenly start jumping through hoops to keep you.

      I am so pleased LW2 has managed to land on her feet though!

  2. justarando*

    I generally lurk here reading every post but not wading into the comments, but I really feel for both the first LW here and the coworker she’s struggling with. I was treated (successfully!) for stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2020.

    If I had to hazard a guess, I wonder if the coworker’s use of the word “terminal” was more based on this being a *potentially* life-threatening diagnosis, rather than his actual individual prognosis (which may have been unclear until after his surgery!). He was probably feeling completely overwhelmed and scared and not thinking about getting his terminology exactly right. It sounds like his surgery was successful – maybe more successful than expected! – and he doesn’t need any further treatment, at least for the time being.

    As the LW has realized, “cancer” doesn’t look just one way. I had six rounds of chemo, and although I did lose my hair, I felt weirdly fine most of the time – except for the first couple days after each treatment, I was walking and doing yoga every day, taking care of my 2-year-old son, etc. Every individual experience with cancer is different.

    And really, I would say at this point there’s no need to treat him with kid gloves – it sounds like he doesn’t *want* that! If he seems fine, and says he’s fine, and doesn’t want to talk about his experience with cancer, then take him at his word and *treat him like any other colleague* who was behaving in this unreliable way.

    Best wishes to both of you. Cancer sucks.

    1. Required Name*

      Yes, this! I was diagnosed with leukemia 10 years ago, in remission for 9. It’s treated with oral chemo and I never even lost my hair. The symptoms from the chemo were some nausea and exhaustion—although exhaustion was also a symptom and it was better as a side effect than it had been before my diagnosis.

      I kept it a secret at work, too. My colleagues may have noticed that I had less energy but I never looked “sick.”

      I’m glad your colleague is doing well!

  3. Momma Bear*

    I have a friend who is terminal, as in it can’t be cured, but they probably have 5-7 years best guess. Most of the time you would have no idea what they are dealing with. I would follow the coworker’s lead. If they want to be treated like normal most of the time, then do so. If they need understanding about last-minute treatments or response to treatment not being as expected, pivot with compassion.

  4. Goldenrod*

    These are all amazing updates! In particular, regarding LW #1:

    “I May Be Wrong by Bjorn Natthiko Lindeblad is a monk’s reflection on the best advice he ever received: in essence, have the ability to step back from a situation, a conversation, a reaction and say “I may be wrong” three times. It is SO freeing. So freeing.”

    That sounds like a fascinating book. First chance I get, I’m going to download it on my Kindle. Thanks for the recommendation!!

  5. Helen_of_the_Midwest*

    Regarding letter writer #1, I second everyone else who’s said that cancer doesn’t look just one way. My mom was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in hear early forties. (She’s doing great now, well over a decade later, but she’s been in an out of remission several times along the way, which has been scary.) Her oncologist didn’t think that my mom’s particular type of cancer would respond to chemo, so she never had chemo and never lost her hair.

    Other than the first couple months post-diagnosis, when she had radiation and surgery, my mom has “looked healthy” for almost all the time she’s had cancer. In fact, she’s aging so well (according to societal standards of looking good) that people often think that my dad, who’s actually younger than my mom, is my mom’s father as well as mine–they think my mom and I are siblings.

    None of this negates the fact that there is cancer in more than a dozen of my mom’s bones, because her cancer metastasized a LOT before the doctors caught it. Looking young and healthy doesn’t change the fact that my mom will have cancer for however long she continues to live. I know the letter writer has known several people with cancer, but that doesn’t make their experience universal.

    Of course, having someone tell you a big, scary thing and then being asked to keep it a secret sucks! Having a coworker who isn’t doing good work also sucks! But that doesn’t mean it’s right to judge whether someone has cancer by looking at them.

    1. Caring Carey*

      > Of course, having someone tell you a big, scary thing and then being asked to keep it a secret sucks! Having a coworker who isn’t doing good work also sucks! But that doesn’t mean it’s right to judge whether someone has cancer by looking at them.

      Hear, hear. I would totally struggle in LW’s place. I am not going to pretend I wouldn’t. And also: my mom didn’t look sick, even when the tumor got so big she looked pregnant. Even when she was bedridden. Up until her last two months, she looked fantastic… from the outside. It happens like that sometimes.

      I’m so glad your mom is doing well!

    2. allathian*

      Yes, this. My mom had breast cancer when she was 50. She had surgery, radiation therapy, and estrogen blockers. She was on sick leave for about a month after the surgery. I can’t remember how often she had radiation therapy, but I’m sure she worked between treatments. But because she never had chemo, she never lost her hair. She g0t tired more easily than usual for a while, and she was also sore from the radiation therapy, but that didn’t stop her from living a full life.

      About 25 years later, a few years ago, the cancer returned, and this time it had metastasized in one of her pulmonary lobes, which they removed. She’s back in remission now and doing very well, with regular check-ups. I didn’t know they could prescribe estrogen blockers to a 75-year-old! She had an easy medically-induced menopause at 50 and told me she had one hot flash at 75. She still looks younger than her age because her skin doesn’t wrinkle easily.

      That said, I’d hate to be in the position the LW was in. I don’t like secrets at the best of times, and keeping someone else’s secret is particularly burdensome for me. I’d far rather not be the recipient of such confidences, at work at least. I’m willing to do some emotional labor on behalf of a friend, but not a coworker. As much as I like working with my coworkers, they’re still acquaintances rather than friends.

    3. Suspicious Mind*

      Funnily enough, I just had a colleague share a Stage 3 cancer diagnosis this week and he has asked me to keep it quiet. I’ve known him for 5 years and have no reason to believe he would lie, BUT I’m still burnt by a former colleague lying about his terminal brain tumour 15 years ago. He didn’t look sick and eventually admitted he’d lied to everyone. So now I’m sad that my first instinct is to be suspicious. No idea how to get past that! In this instance, I’ll just wait and see I guess – and respond with kindness and support in the meantime.

  6. Momma Bear*

    For the one that missed the gala, even if it doesn’t change today, I suggest that you take this information to your manager. “I was not able to afford the travel expenses for this event and no one was able to confirm whether or not I would be reimbursed. I see that there were a number of important people in our field at the event, and it would have been a career growth opportunity for me, as well as further benefit for the company. Can you help create or clarify a policy so this type of event is accessible to the people who would benefit from attending?”

    Secondarily, if there’s no confirmed policy and you can possibly eat the cost, in the future I would go, and then expense it and let them approve/deny. It might give you a platform to argue that it’s a legit business expense.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      This is a good idea. I really feel for the letter writer that they missed the opportunity to meet and network with people and be publicly recognized for their contribution.

      That said, I hope they remember that they DID contribute and that they get to claim that contribution in their resume and interviews.

    2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      op 3 – I had a similar experience; I won an award for a conference presentation, but was not allowed to travel to collect the award at the NEXT conference……….oh I could go, but I had to pay my way if I did.

      There are several wild-ass “dinner table stories” to tell about that whole incident and things leading up to it, but it’s best that they’re left behind.

    3. Michelle Smith*

      On top of this, please make sure you put this award on your resume and any online professional presences you may have (e.g. personal website, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.). Whether or not you were there to accept it in person, you still won it!

      And I think it sounds like meeting these people is important to you, but the gala is not the only way to do that. You can follow them on social media and connect that way. You can also see if your office has any money for professional development and if so, perhaps you can go to a conference in the future either fully or partially subsidized by your workplace and meet the people there. Don’t give up searching for the networking opportunities you’re looking for just because the gala is over. You’ve got this!

    4. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      I hope the rest of the team who did attend, credited OP verbally when they talked about the project as well. It would be shitty not to.

    5. OP3*

      Thanks for this, it’s an interesting idea. I work in a statutory organisation where policies are often decided nationally rather than locally, and at the level I work at there’s a clear message that being poor is for other people; the expectation at this level is you will have loooooads of disposable income.

      When I’ve pushed back with senior leadership that some of their staff are in the socioeconomic bracket our service exists to support, they’ve openly scoffed at the idea- but I suppose if you’ve spent years being paid over £100k it’s hard to imagine that some of your staff are barely holding things together on a quarter or a third of that…

      1. Hen in a Windstorm*

        It’s so bizarre that they scoff when, you know, they have access to the actual pay data as senior staff. I’d work on a script to respond to the scoffing, personally, because that level of entitlement pisses me off. Maybe suggest that if they expect you to have that level of income, they need to provide it?

        Hugs. And congrats on your award.

  7. Smithy*

    For #3, I do hope that anyone reading this in future gets an idea of expenses they could ask most employers to cover (transportation to/from – even if pricier taxis – or overnight accommodation), and what not (clothing). While I’m sure there were some very formally dressed people at a black tie event, I’m sure there were also feminine presenting people there wearing clothing they got from stores such as TJ Maxx, Target, second hand, rented or borrowed and just styled formally.

    There are just so so many creative options out there….including keeping the tags on and returning them the day after the event…..(not to recommend doing regularly, but in a pinch)

    1. Michelle Smith*

      I wore a dress from Macy’s once to a formal event. When I put it on right before going, I realized it had a hole in the seams (I missed it in the dressing room somehow!) but I didn’t have anything else so I just wore it. I told my boss about it later and she encouraged me to return it. I was hesitant since I’d worn it already and then the world shut down with COVID and I didn’t feel comfortable going in stores. That woman went to the office, got the dress where I’d left it, and took it back to Macy’s for me. Do you know I got my money back? Where there’s a will….

    2. stradbaldwingirl*

      I’ve actually had two jobs in which I was able to expense formal wear for an industry event. So I’d say not to rule it out completely, even though it might not be standard. (I’m a journalist, and the reimbursement was for events we regularly attended in order to meet people to interview for future stories.)

    3. OP3*

      Hi, OP3 here- the big difficulty in finding gala-worthy clothes was that I’m plus-size (UK24) and finding ordinary day-to-day clothes at a reasonable price in my size is a challenge; formal wear is virtually impossible.

      There’s still a huge conflation of laziness/ unworthiness with being fat, and although I’m sure someone who takes a ‘straight’ size would be able to pull off something fabulous from TKMaxx that’s just not a resource that’s available to those of us who are super-fats, and would be somewhat stigmatising in itself- in the same way that slim femmes in loungewear and a messy bun are seen as being relaxed but fat femmes in the same outfit and hairstyle are seen as lazy and messy.

      In my part of the world there are no plus-size dress agencies that I’m aware of; no in-person discount clothes shops- in fact, the only plus-size place in my town shut down pre-pandemic. Online shopping is very risky- quality tends to be poor, design choices limited. It constantly amazes me that no one has plugged the gap in the market for reasonably priced plus-size clothing (or certainly not in the UK!)- us fats can either buy low-price low-quality clothes online, or high-price medium-quality clothes in limited locations and that’s it. Fat people have money too (not me, obvs)!

      1. Brightwanderer*

        Just throwing solidarity sympathy your way OP – I’m also in the UK, fat, and disabled. I’m in the process of learning to make my own clothes because spending more than a few minutes in a shop is nearly impossible and nothing fits. I’m glad I’m doing it – it’s actually helping me accept my own body more as I learn how to measure it, and I’m excited to be able to make exactly the kind of clothes I want – but it’s a big learning curve, not least because all the ready-to-sew patterns tend to need upsizing and adjustment!

      2. bunny thee foo*

        OP, as someone who’s significantly larger than you are (if I’m reading the conversion charts correctly, a UK24 is equivalent to a US20) I would like to introduce you to eShakti.com. They make what I consider to be relatively affordable clothing to measure – I have a floor length sequined dress with long sleeves that I purchased for a black tie event last January, that I got for around $80 on sale. And that’s with changing the neckline, adding sleeves, and having it made to my measurements – and it included shipping! I’ve just checked and it’s still there, and lo, they’re once again running a killer sale. And they do ship to the UK!

        While it’s too late for this event, I’d highly suggest checking them for future need of special occasion dresses. Or just nice quality dresses that’ll fit you, for that matter. I’ve got three or four more casual dresses from there which I regularly get compliments on. They’re never going to be “oh, I found an amazing gown in a charity shop” cheap (and oh, how I envy my thin friends their amazing charity shop finds) but if you shop their sales you can get good quality clothes at a reasonable price

  8. surprisedcannuk*

    When it comes to cancer everyone is different. Everyone’s health is different. I was talking about my elderly grandparents mid 90s. Then someone mention their grandparents late 60s. Younger than my parents. You got be careful and not make assumptions. I have no idea about the health of my friends grandparents. Maybe my grand parents are in better health.

  9. Danish*

    I’m sorry about #3, that you did end up having to miss the ceremony! I hope your workplace can be more thoughtful (or at least more prompt in getting you info) in the future.

    For #1, it sounds like the positive/friendly version of ‘not my circus, not my monkeys’. Somebody has monkeys? Not my job to worry about if they have the proper set up for monkeys or how the monkey situation is developing. I can just be happy/neutral/whatever for them.

    1. Danish*

      Er, not that ‘secret cancer’ is a “be happy for them” scenario. Positive in a, you’re not keeping yourself out of “drama” you’re just not taking on mental work that isn’t your responsibility, that they haven’t asked you to do.

  10. L'étrangere*

    OP#3 how sad.. please, please next time you win an award make sure you go collect it in person, no matter what you have to do to get there. It’s a fine resume item, but the networking at the event is actually much more valuable. And also please listen to the advice you got from people with actual experience of these events, you do not ever need a ball gown. Now as someone roughly your size I know the thrift store advice is not that helpful. But you have a job, don’t you have an interview suit? That is your formalwear for business related events. You might want to wear it with a brighter colored blouse, or I like my glittery silver tanktop, and girly shoes. But again, cheap is good and it doesn’t need to fit too well as most of it will be covered by the jacket. You’ll need a suit/ish thing for your next interview anyways, so if your current one is inadequate look carefully at sales coming up, you can’t leave this kind of purchase to the last minute. Don’t be shy about the judicious application of good-quality knits if you’re tied up in knots about fit and comfort, rayon-based ponte does not pill and flows better over curves. There are lots of welcoming groups of larger women waiting for you on the net that’d be thrilled to help with advice, and to get you over this sad misperception that there’s nothing for you to wear

    1. I should really pick a name*

      please, please next time you win an award make sure you go collect it in person, no matter what you have to do to get there

      That sounds a bit extreme. Not going because of financial limitations is perfectly reasonable.

    2. OP3*

      Thanks for this- I wouldn’t say it’s a misperception that there’s nothing for me to wear; that’s my lived experience. I’m on an extremely limited budget, and where I live in the UK there’s very little in the way of plus-size clothing available at a price I can afford. I don’t own an interview suit; I tend to cobble together separate pieces that look acceptably smart but definitely wouldn’t rise to the level of ‘formal-wear’. I often find myself in the position of having to choose 2 from 3 in terms of cost, fit and availability.

      I’m aware that if I had money to spend my options would be much broader. I don’t and they’re not.

      1. inko*

        I hear you OP3. I’m a UK fat as well and the only reason I own a formal dress is eBay. Scarlett & Jo stuff in decent nick comes up sometimes.

  11. Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii*

    They essentially sat me down and walked me line by line that I did not deserve what I was asking for on the list or deflected blame.

    Just wow.
    So their “counteroffer” was victim blaming you and they actually thought this would work…
    Are they insane or incredibly full of themselves?

    And the cherry on top, they added they would need to see “certain types of performance” to provide me to increase salary. I pressed on what type of performance since we had no performance structure, and was essentially told they didn’t have one and didn’t plan to put one in.

    They are deluded.

    1. OP3*

      Hi, thanks for your response.

      I should have made it much clearer in my original letter that a big part of the appropriate clothing issue is my size (UK24) which means I don’t know anyone I can borrow clothes from; charity shops rarely have everyday clothes in my size much less formalwear; there are no dress agencies in my part of the UK (I’ve looked); simple long black dresses in plus sizes are either expensive or poor quality.

      That was only one aspect of the greater whole, that organisations with many layers of upper management forget that lower levels may be barely scraping by during the COL crisis and that lack of money = lack of access to opportunities. You might not want that to be true and see it as those of us who are poor choosing to be victims, but the reality is that the more disposable income you have the greater the number of opportunities available to you.

      I hope you’ll be able to summon up some thought and gumption to reflect on the possibility that someone you imagine is wearing a “Victim hoodie” might be struggling with a situation you have no idea about.

    2. PlantProf*

      People can care a LOT about what others (especially women) wear to formal events, especially ones for work. There would be a real risk of repercussions, either specific or general judgement. Especially for someone whose size often means their appearance is subjected to additional scrutiny. There is a real cost to being perceived as unprofessional, ignorant of norms, or rude (which telling anyone to “shove it” would very much be). You are completely off base, and very rude.

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