Disclosing a cancer diagnosis is a personal choice. Some people are very open about it, while others prefer to only share the news with a select few. There is no one “right” way to share (or not share) a cancer diagnosis with others, but there are certain circumstances where it may be helpful to inform someone of what is happening in your life. Many people are able to continue working during their treatments, but treatment and its effects may be hard to hide completely from an employer.
You are not required to tell your employer you have cancer. However, your treatment may require time off or affect your ability to do certain tasks required for your job. If your boss is unaware this is due to a cancer diagnosis, a perceived drop in productivity or performance could be grounds for termination. Disclosing one’s diagnosis in the workplace, however, offers certain protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
, which requires the employer to make what is known as “reasonable accommodations” for a person with cancer.
What are reasonable accommodations for a person with cancer?
Under the ADA, businesses with 15 or more employees are required to offer accommodations to any employee with a disability, so long as it does not cause “undue hardship” to the business. For a person with cancer, these can include, but are not limited to:
- Flexible work hours for treatment or healthcare visits
- Breaks to take medication
- A private area to rest
- The option to work from home (if possible) during periods where the employee is recovering or immunocompromised
- Temporarily or permanently adjusting certain tasks within the employee’s job description
- Using Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to take time off during treatment, if the employee is eligible
When do I tell my employer I have cancer?
The earlier an employee discloses a cancer diagnosis, the earlier ADA protections are applied. However, it’s okay if you’re not ready to share this information with your boss right away. If you’d like to wait until you have more information about what to expect during treatment (such as frequency, duration, or possible side effects) that’s fine, too. Some information you may want gather before telling your employer:
- How appointments may affect your work schedule
- How treatment or their side effects may affect your work performance
- Your doctor’s recommendations for adjusting your work schedule or job requirements
It’s okay to wait until you have this information before talking with your employer. The more you know, the better you’ll be at communicating what you and your doctor expect from treatment, and what adjustments you and your employer might need to make. Waiting until you have all the information might also cut down on the number of conversations you’ll need to have with your boss about this topic.
Who do I have to tell?
Workplace dynamics differ from office to office. You may feel most comfortable telling your direct supervisor first, who should then refer you to the company’s human resources (HR) office to formally arrange for the reasonable accommodations you’ve requested. If you feel your supervisor will be less-than-receptive to your news, begin with HR so you have your protections in place.
If you want to tell colleagues, clients, or contractors what is happening, that is your choice. Legally, your employer cannot tell other employees about your medical situation, even if clients ask questions about your absence or coworkers notice you receiving accommodations.
Do I have to tell my employer everything about my diagnosis?
You can choose how much—or how little—you want to share with your employer. Legally, an employer can’t ask about an employee’s medical condition unless they believe it has created a liability (such as a safety hazard) for the employee or others.
When preparing to share a cancer diagnosis with an employer, you may find it helpful to discuss what to say and when to say it with an oncology specialist. This professional - who can be a nurse, social worker, or even a Jasper Navigator - can inform you of all your rights as an employee, as well as help you identify the proper channels for disclosing a cancer diagnosis at your workplace.
What if my employer isn’t supportive?
Though the vast majority of employers are supportive after finding out an employee has cancer, some supervisors may be more focused on the bottom line of the company than your health and well-being. Again, you have a legal right to certain accommodations through the ADA.
It is good practice to take notes and keep records of your conversations with your supervisor regarding your cancer diagnosis. If you are experiencing discrimination due to your cancer or denied reasonable accomodations, this documentation will help you to file a formal report with your company’s human resources department.
The American Cancer Society’s fact sheet
on what is (and isn’t) covered by ADA laws can be helpful for employees with cancer. You can also contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
, a federal agency responsible for assisting employees with workplace issues and enforcing ADA and FMLA laws.
The bottom line
You may be hesitant to disclose a cancer diagnosis to an employer, especially if you’re not sure how they’ll respond. However, most supervisors and workplaces are aware of and compliant with ADA laws. Telling an employer puts these protections into place, and can give you peace of mind knowing you can maintain your employment through treatment and beyond.