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Need to tell your work about your breast cancer?


Does your boss really need to know if you have breast cancer? How are your co-workers?

This is your call. And that depends on what’s best for you.

If you need time during treatment or reasonable accommodation, such as being able to work from home, it can inform your boss or your HR team. Employees you are close to can be a comfort.

But if you prefer to keep it private, you can do so.

Here’s how four women handled their breast cancer diagnosis at work.

I told my boss and some co-workers

Niomi Thompson, an administrator of the community college in Wichita, KS, is receiving chemotherapy for stage III breast cancer. She chose to make her diagnosis known at work because she knew she would look different after starting treatment and that she would have to miss days of work.

“The first person I told was my immediate supervisor,” Thompson says. “After about a week, I sent an email to several close associates to tell them directly.” She also gave her supervisor permission to tell other members of their team so she would not have to repeat her story over and over.

She is happy with her decision.

“My immediate supervisor was incredibly understanding and compassionate, as were my co-workers and other team members,” says Thompson. “I’m glad I told them that, because a lot of them shared their own experiences with cancer and it was reassuring to hear their stories.”

Thompson’s associates even set up meals for her chemo days, which helped her family. But not everyone has such a supportive situation.

I did not tell anyone at work

“In December 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I kept it very quiet,” says Daphne Ortiz, a publicist and owner of a small public relations officer, Statement PR in Chicago.

Ortiz decided not to share her diagnosis with anyone at work. “I did not want them to worry, and I did not want them to think I was not the best in my game,” she says.

She also did not tell her clients.

“I did not want them to think I had such cancer that I could not pay attention to their account,” Ortiz said. “If you can not do the job, there are many other fantastic publicists who can do in my business.”

Keeping things private also helped her personally.

“Work was a great place for me to focus and remove myself from the fear of living with cancer,” says Ortiz.

She did tell good friends in other parts of her life. Just not at work.

“I needed people to have good energy on this trip,” she says. By keeping it private at work, she does not have to face any discomfort.

Six years later, she says it was the right decision for her.

Open book

Sara Olsher found out she had breast cancer when she was marketing director at Red Tricycle, a small business in Sausalito, CA.

Olsher has a family history of breast cancer and a lawyer for early investigations. She was very open with her team about her family history, and even updated it on her own performances.

When she was diagnosed, Olsher immediately told her CEO. “I felt uncomfortable, but also less alone,” she says.

Her boss was worried and offered to help. She even brought groceries for her because she was not sure what she needed.

“It was so nice. It really meant a lot to me, ”says Olsher.

She also told her co-workers. “Being part of a small team means I wanted to share with people,” she says.

After surgery, Olsher found out that the cancer had spread and that she would need chemotherapy. She expected the treatment to last a year, and so she took disability leave.

“My boss covered my health insurance for a while and created a different position for me when I returned to work, although I was definitely not the same as before,” she says, noting that she has cognitive problems and fatigue.

Olsher says she was open at work to help 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 has no co-workers to tell her diagnosis.

But she made the decision to tell it to her patients because she knew they would eventually see changes in her appearance due to chemotherapy.

“I honestly did not feel I had a choice,” she says. “For me, it was important to know the truth about what was going on with me rather than to speculate.”

She also wanted to be a positive role model for her patients, to show them that it’s good to admit that you can not do everything and to take time to take care of yourself.

As a therapist, Steinorth-Powell says it can be a mistake to do all this without the support of others.

“There is no price to be strong,” she says.

It is often helpful to tell your boss and your HR team about your diagnosis, she says. “Most places are incredibly understandable and accommodating when they know you need help.”

“And remember,” says Steinorth-Powell, “no one can help you if you do not let them know you need something.”



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