Colleagues, me, and my cancer

One of the many decisions you must make when diagnosed with cancer, is if you should share the news with your work colleagues. Dr Nelia Drenth offers advice on how to approach this.

The workplace is, for many of us, our second place of safety, after that of our family homes. This is where we spend at least eight hours of the day. We often have more satisfying relationships with our colleagues, than other people. We have friends in the workplace, but there are also colleagues whom we just tolerate…for the sake of the job. It’s a totally different environment than our home environment. 

How then do you react when cancer has been diagnosed, and you must face your colleagues, not only those you like, but also those you don’t have close relationships with? What are the challenges and benefits of sharing your diagnosis with colleagues? And how do you manage their reactions? And your own? 

You remember how you reacted when you received your diagnosis. The emotions that engulfed you are most likely to still be part of who you are and how you react. 

You surely remember how hard it was to decide who to disclose to in your immediate family. And now you may be faced with the difficult decision of what to share, how to share it, and when to share it with your colleagues. 

Sharing your diagnosis with colleagues

Cancer presents major challenges, such as fear and awkwardness in the workplace. Here are tips to support you when you decide to share with your colleagues:

  • If you’re working during treatment, or on your return to work after treatment, you may experience subtle discrimination in the workplace by being overlooked for new positions or not receiving the promotion that you’ve earned. You can overcome this by discussing a return-to-work plan, having an honest conversation with the HR department to ensure that they are aware of the possible effects of your treatment. It may be good to negotiate flexible working hours. COVID-19 has shown that we can work from home and still be as productive as being present in the workplace. 
  • Remember that rumours spread faster than a virus. And rumours are often exaggerated and pulled out of context. It’s best that you disclose your diagnosis if possible, so you can avoid rumours. 
  • If you decide to share your diagnosis and treatment, it may be helpful to first use journaling as a method to structure your thoughts and to decide what and how much you want to share. It may also help you to identify your emotions and your reactions to it once you decide to share. 
  • It’s normal to be emotional when you’re in such a difficult position. Tears are not a sign of weakness! Your tears may be the safety net for your colleagues to also share their compassion with you.
  • Choose a safe place when you decide to disclose to your colleagues.   
  • People will react differently. Some may come with unwanted advice or share their own experiences to make you feel better. Remember that your colleagues may be uncomfortable with your news and may not know how to react. You are the one in control of this situation, by setting the ‘rules’ of how you want them to support you. It’s a fact that for every negative reaction you may receive from colleagues, you will receive many more positive, compassionate responses. 
  • You don’t have to spill the beans all in one session. Just share what you’re comfortable with. And if it’s just one sentence, that is okay. Just be prepared that your colleagues may ask you difficult questions. It may be good to ‘test’ what you’re going to tell them on family members or good friends.
  • Don’t be too proud to accept help from your colleagues. They may offer to take over some of your workload, or cover for you when the effects of treatment are harsh. Allowing them to support you, gives them a feeling that they are doing something practical to ease your discomfort.

Decide what is best for you

Everybody’s work situation is different, and your colleagues’ reactions are important to support you on your cancer journey. You know your workplace and colleagues and you should decide what is best for you. There are many things that you can’t control during your cancer journey, but there is power from knowing that you made the decision to disclose to your colleagues, and that you are able to accept their honest support.

Dr Nelia Drenth is a palliative care social worker in private practice in 
Pretoria, Gauteng. She presents workshops on psychosocial palliative care 
and bereavement counselling and has a passion for social work in healthcare.

MEET THE EXPERT – Dr Nelia Drenth

Dr Nelia Drenth is a palliative care social worker in private practice in Pretoria, Gauteng. She presents workshops on psychosocial palliative care and bereavement counselling and has a passion for social work in healthcare.

Header image by Freepik