If you have breast cancer, does your boss really need to know? How about your co-workers?
It’s your call. And it depends on what’s best for you.
If you’ll need time off during treatment or reasonable accommodations, like being able to work from home, it may help to tell your boss or HR team. Co-workers you’re close to could be a comfort.
But if you’d rather keep it private, you can.
Here’s how four women handled their breast cancer diagnosis at work.
I Told My Boss and a Few Co-workers
Niomi Thompson, a community college administrator in Wichita, KS, is getting chemotherapy for stage III breast cancer. She chose to disclose her diagnosis at work because she knew she’d look different after starting treatment and would have to miss days of work.
“The first person I told was my direct supervisor,” Thompson says. “After about a week, I emailed several close co-workers to tell them directly.” She also gave her supervisor permission to tell other members of their team so she wouldn’t have to repeat her story over and over.
She’s happy with her decision.
“My direct supervisor was incredibly understanding and compassionate, as were my co-workers and other team members,” Thompson says. “I’m glad I told them because many of them shared their own experiences with cancer and it was comforting to hear their stories.”
Thompson’s co-workers even set up meals for her chemo days, which helped her family. But not everyone has such a supportive situation.
I Told No One at Work
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2015 and I kept it very quiet,” says Daphne Ortiz, a publicist and owner of a small public relations company called Statement PR in Chicago.
Ortiz decided not to share her diagnosis with anyone at work. “I didn’t want them to be concerned and I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t on top of my game,” she says.
She also didn’t tell her clients.
“I didn’t want them to think I’d be so consumed with having cancer that I couldn’t pay attention to their account,” Ortiz says. “In my business, if you can’t do the job, there’s tons of other fantastic publicists that can.”
Keeping things private helped her personally, too.
“Work was a good place for me to focus and take myself out of the fear of living with cancer,” Ortiz says.
She did tell close friends in other parts of her life. Just not at work.
“I needed people to have good energy about me going on this journey,” she says. By keeping it private at work, she didn’t have to face any awkwardness.
Six years later, she says it was the right decision for her.
Sara Olsher found out she had breast cancer when she was the marketing director at Red Tricycle, a small start-up company in Sausalito, CA.
Olsher had a family history of breast cancer and an advocate for early screenings. She was very open with her team at work about her family history, even updating them on her own screenings.
When she got diagnosed, Olsher immediately told her CEO. “I felt awkward, but also less alone,” she says.
Her boss was concerned and offered to help. She even brought her groceries because she wasn’t sure what she needed.
“It was so kind. It truly meant a lot to me,” Olsher says.
She also told her co-workers. “Being part of a small team meant that I wanted to share with people what was going on,” she says.
After having surgery, Olsher found out the cancer had spread and that she’d need chemotherapy. She expected treatment to last a year, so she took disability leave.
“My boss covered my health insurance for a period of time and created another position for me when I came back to work, even though I most definitely was not the same as I was before,” she says, noting that she had cognitive issues and fatigue.
Olsher says being open at work helped her avoid the stress of worrying if people would find out. It was also necessary because she needed time away from work. But it’s a personal decision, she says, and it may depend on the team and your boss.
I Wanted to Set an Example
Christina Steinorth-Powell, a licensed psychotherapist in Nashville, is self-employed. So she didn’t have co-workers to tell about her diagnosis.
But she made the decision to tell her patients because she knew they’d eventually notice changes in how she looked due to chemotherapy.
“I honestly didn’t feel like I had a choice,” she says. “For me, it was important to know the truth about what was going on with me rather than speculate.”
She also wanted to be a positive role model for her patients, to show them it’s OK to admit you can’t do everything and to take time to take care of yourself.
As a therapist, Steinorth-Powell says trying to do it all without support from others can be a mistake.
“There’s no prize for being strong,” she says.
It’s often helpful to tell your boss and HR team about your diagnosis, she says. “Most places are unbelievably understanding and accommodating when they know you need help.”
“And remember,” Steinorth-Powell says, “no one can help you if you don’t let them know you need something.”