Revealing a Cancer Diagnosis in the Workplace: To Tell or Not to Tell?

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There is no right decision on if – or how – to reveal a cancer diagnosis in the workplace.

There is no one right way for a cancer survivor to disclose their diagnosis to their employer, and a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Denver and Cancer and Careers found that many individuals grapple with how – and if – to tell their workplace that they have cancer.

The researchers conducted a semi-structured focus group including 27 patients and asked them what happened before giving their employers the news, what it was like to tell them and what the potential consequences would be.

“Focus group participants expressed how challenging it was to decide what was the ‘right’ way to handle disclosure for themselves, without anyone being able to tell them what they ‘should’ do,” said study author Trisha Raque-Bogdan, who holds a postdoctoral degree and is an associate professor at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education, in an interview with CURE®.

There were mixed results regarding whether or not to disclose the diagnosis at all.

“Some felt disclosing was a key part of making meaning of their cancer diagnosis and advocating for cancer survivors in the workplace,” Raque-Bogdan said. “Others felt the need to keep cancer separate from their work lives so as to have a life space where they felt in control, efficacious and were able to not think about cancer if they did not want to.”

It was important that patients were able to choose if they told their employer about their cancer, as well as how the conversation was conducted, such as telling others personally and/or having someone sharing the information on their behalf.

When deciding whether or not to disclose, patients reported considering potential job prospects, workplace support, economic status, access to health care and other factors that affected how in-control they felt about disclosure, like workplace marginalization and discrimination due to personal identities (race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, etc.), according to Raque-Bogdan.

“How the workplace responded was another factor that affected their experience of disclosing to supervisors and colleagues,” Raque-Bogdan said. “Some survivors described feeling closer to others afterwards, whereas others felt their work was more heavily scrutinized after.”

Raque-Bogdan said that patients should take time to carefully consider disclosure before rushing into a decision. This also means being careful about what is posted on social media, as revealing a diagnosis there can end up with employers knowing. They should think about how disclosure can affect their career immediately, as well as five, 10 or 15 years into the future.

“We spend more of our waking hours than doing anything… so if work is not meeting our basic needs, it can greatly affect our quality of life,” Raque-Bodgan said. “The disclosure process can hold implications for workers’ rights in the workplace, what kind of support and accommodations they receive, and how they integrate cancer into their identities broadly as well as part of how they approach work.”

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