I Have Breast Cancer: What Do I Tell My Coworkers?

Published: April 11, 2017

Helen Pass, MD, Director of Breast Surgery and Co-Director, Breast Center


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You’ve already taken the first step of telling your loved ones about your breast cancer diagnosis. You’ve most likely fielded some difficult reactions, questions and even suggestions. Unfortunately, you are also likely face the same challenges, but in different environments.


For most, the need to continue to work is a reality. After you discuss with your physician what work related duties are possible and set realistic expectations, you next need to figure out what to discuss about your breast cancer diagnosis with your boss and colleagues in a way that’s as fair and appropriate as possible for everyone? These ideas may help.


1. Communicate with your care team first.
Your Nurse Navigator is there to help you through the ups and downs of your personal journey. When you meet, talk openly about your lifestyle and your working environment. Express anything and everything that’s on your mind. These conversations will help establish at least a rough schedule of your treatments so you’re prepared to share this information when the time comes.

2. Understand there’s no right answer for everyone.
You don’t have to share your personal business in a professional setting. However, your core team may approach you if you miss work for treatments or seem distracted. That said, only you know your office culture, so consider what method is best for delivering the news. You may choose to briefly bring it up at a status meeting or share it privately with your boss. You may even turn to your closest colleague for advice first. Regardless, any reasonable employer should and will be understanding and accommodating.

3. Set expectations, but know things may change.
After the initial flood of sympathy, you can expect many questions in regards to your plan. Knowing that oftentimes, life has its own agenda, don’t feel bad about being vague. A simple, “My treatment team and I are working through it. I’ll keep you updated on any major events and let you know how my schedule will be impacted,” will suffice.

4. Keep a journal or list.
Get in the habit of recording your thoughts, physical symptoms and concerns as they relate to your treatment and how it may impact work. Do you have questions for HR? By law, what accommodations will your workplace provide? Do you anticipate needing regular leave in the event you’ll feel ill after treatment? Being honest with yourself will also help you be as candid as possible with your colleagues. Really think this part through and know that anything you say to your manager may be repeated to the rest of your team. On the same note, it’s probably a good idea to keep track of emails and records of your work performance during this time.

5. And the cross-examination…
We saved the best for last—the slew of questions. Some of these suggested answers may help.

Q: So when’s your last day of work?
A: I have no plans to leave. My goal is to work successfully through my treatment.

Q: Does this mean I have to cover for you?
A: That’s a good question, but not one I can answer at the moment. I’m happy to sit down with <Boss> and work it out together. But really, it’s not up to me.

Q: My mom had breast cancer and she was in the hospital for weeks at a time. What are you going to do?
A: Sorry to hear that. I’m going to let life and my treatment take their course. I’m also going to continue the activities I love as much as possible.

Q: I feel so sorry for you. What can I do to help?
A: I appreciate the thought. Really, I need a break from thinking about this, so if you could support me in the decision to focus on work at work, that would be great.


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