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I work in a large team (~50 headcount) at the head office of a large multinational bank. Last year I was diagnosed with cancer - thankfully a very survivable form of it. I had an operation to remove the tumour and I spent 3 weeks away from work recovering.

Currently I’m on a surveillance programme where I get my blood tested every few weeks and I get a full scan every so often. So far everything is clear, but my oncologist informs me that the first 2 years are when most reoccurrences will happen, so no cause for celebration just yet.

The complication here is that my wedding was 3 weeks after I was diagnosed, the wedding day was the day I would otherwise have returned to work. I still made it to my wedding and took the 2 weeks holiday I’d already booked to go on our honeymoon. When I came back everyone except the senior managers in my team thought I somehow wrangled a 5 week honeymoon, and I never bothered to correct them.

I rejected adjuvant chemotherapy because it sounded too risky, but despite this I was desperate to find a way to fight back. Because of the mental stress and the need for me to feel like I’m fighting back I agreed with the team leader to reduce my hours by 20% (with an equivalent reduction in salary) which is very exceptional on my team. I’ve used this extra time productively by a) talking things through with a counsellor and b) losing a decent amount of weight at the gym.

There are a few people on my team who I’m more connected to so I’ve talked to them about it. But by and large most of my team don’t know for sure why I’m doing a 4 days week. A few have made a comment to me about how ideal my arrangement would be for them, which I suppose sounds reasonable from their perspective.

How do I talk to my coworkers about this? Personally I’ve never been good at announcing anything to a crowd larger than one. Any advice would be much appreciated!

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    Probably because of recent comments, but also because at the time it felt too daunting talking about something which was so fresh in my mind – A Z May 31 at 21:15
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    Oh, and congratulations on your wedding too! Take some time to sure you're looking after your partner, I'm pretty sure in my case my cancer affected my family more than me (!) – Lamar Latrell Jun 1 at 5:10
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    First question is: Do you want to inform your coworkers about this, and why? Your contract and working conditions are between you and the company, and while it is not unusual for coworkers to be intrigued by your arrangements, it is actually none of their business so you do not need to inform them. What are your objectives with such an announcement. – SJuan76 Jun 1 at 7:45
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    Congratulaions @AZ, on your wedding, on your battle, on the lost weight, and for sounding like a good person in general :) – essay Jun 3 at 15:21
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    I don't see how this can be answered unless you state what problem you're having and what goal you want to achieve. – ell Jun 3 at 16:15

11 Answers 11

94

It isn't entirely clear from your post whether you're dealing with negative comments or if you're just trying to proactively tell the group about your health.

Dealing with negativity
I'm also on 80% work and, while some colleagues know the reasons for it, others have made a few snarky comments about how I'm never around. I try to ignore most of the negativity; perception only matters for people whose opinion you respect and those are probably the same people you've already talked with about it. Anyone who starts questioning my work is referred to my manager, who does his job and manages their concerns.

For other lookers-on and commentators, I would take it on a case-by-case basis, sticking to minimal facts.

  1. Imaginary coworker: "How come you're always out?"
    Me: "I work an 80% schedule but I also only get 80% pay."
    A light bulb of understanding illuminates and imaginary coworker backs off.

  2. Imaginary coworker: "Where do you keep going?"
    Me: "I have (medical) appointments."
    Imaginary coworker respects the vagueness, expresses vague sympathy and doesn't pry further.

  3. Imaginary coworker: "Oh. Nothing serious, I hope."
    Me: "I'd rather not talk about it here." OR "Actually, XYZ. ..."

Proactively talking to the group
Go with your level of comfort, but I'd always recommend erring on the side of less information when addressing a group about a medical issue for multiple reasons:

  1. I don't want advice from everyone whose third cousin's sister had a disease that sleeping outside under a new moon with her toes in apple cider vinegar cured.
  2. I go to work as a relief from some of my medical issues, to an extent. I don't want people treating me differently; I just want to do my work.
  3. Some people may be discriminatory - whether it is legal or not. Even years down the line, someone could pass on promoting me because they feel like I can't handle it due to my medical issues.

So as you might guess, I'm not really a fan of basically announcing your diagnosis and treatment to the whole group (especially ~50 people!). That being said, your absences do affect the work so I think it would be appropriate to send out an email or talk with people to let them know your new work schedule. Personally, I'd say something like

Team, I'll be working a reduced scheduled for the foreseeable future and will be out of the office on Fridays. Please be sure to catch me on Thursdays if you have any work you need addressed before the weekend.

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    Nice answer, but I think that it should be the manager/team leader the one to announce that the OP will not be available on a given day. And in fact, I would prefer "The OP will not be available" to "The OP will not be at the office"; the reasons for unavailability are not relevant to the other team members. – SJuan76 Jun 1 at 7:50
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    I wish I could upvote this more than once. No one at your office, with the possible exception of your boss and HR, have any right to know your medical history. Any coworker who consistently prods or harasses you about any "Special treatment" you're getting as a result of it should be getting a visit from HR. – Wipqozn Jun 1 at 13:54
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    Apple cider vinegar? Gotta remember that one. – user73937 Jun 2 at 1:43
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    @SJuan76 Re. whether the manager or the OP should announce their unavailability, this is going to depend on individual factors. As you're suggesting, if it comes from the manager then there's less scope for others to ask questions. OTOH, my manager is fairly hands-off and doesn't need to keep track of everybody I'm supporting, so in my case it usually makes more sense for me to do that communication myself. – Geoffrey Brent Jun 3 at 0:33
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    I wouldn't label every somewhat curious comment or question as negative. For instance, a coworker saying something along the lines of "nothing serious, I hope" could merely be expressing concern - if anything, a sign of a good work relationship. – osuka_ Jun 3 at 6:12
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I'm not sure how comfortable you are doing this, but I might just send out a blast email to my coworkers:

Hi all (or however you choose to address your coworkers). I'd just like to clear the air about my recently and current work situation. I was off for 5 weeks, during which time, as you know, I got married and also went on my honeymoon with my spouse (spouse's name, if you feel it's appropriate; it adds some character to add the name imo, but you don't have to if you don't want to). However, during the first 3 weeks of those 5, I was diagnosed with cancer (you can name the type of cancer here, it might be useful, because your coworkers might be interested in looking it up to see how they might be able to help you). It's not life-threatening, and *knock wood* I seem to be past the worst of it, but for the next little while I'll be working 4 days per week as I continue to recover from the attendant circumstances I find myself in.

Thank you all for your continued support through this troubling time, and thank you for your understanding. As always, I'll continue to perform my duties to the best of my ability.

Sincerely, A Z

That's basically exactly how I'd word it.

EDIT: I'd only send out this email to my team directly, not to all "coworkers". The entire company doesn't need to know about your situation, only those close to you (in working-relationship terms). Just to be clear what I meant by "coworkers" above.

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    Nothing wrong with writing an email. Just one thing - people know cancer is often fatal, and this could give people a huge shock and / or make them think you are milking it for sympathy. I would prefer to say "an illness" rather than "cancer." Not everyone needs to know the nature of the illness. Also, cancer absolutely IS life threatening if not treated so I would avoid that sentence by not mentioning the cancer in the first place.. – Level River St Jun 1 at 7:03
  • @LevelRiverSt Saying it's an "illness" is just going to make people curious and then you'll have them bothering you about it. And they'd have a right to be curious too, by the way: what if you had an illness that might be contagious (fucking ebola or something), or what if your illness might require your co-workers to alter their behavior around you so that they could better assist you – Corrado Jun 1 at 13:32
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    The problem is when you do that, many of them read "blah blah blah cancer". That makes you cootie. They assume you're going to die, wig out about your "bus factor" (but not anyone else's), and expect you to be taken away from them (and if you've cut back hours that's proof positive). – Harper Jun 1 at 14:04
  • "Thank you all for your continued support" and "I'd like to clear the air" don't really sync up for me. Either you're annoyed at the comments and want to set the record straight, or you're trying to thank them for doing what they're already doing. There's a good chance some of the exact people whom you want the first message to get across to will take the liberty of choosing the second interpretation, which can backfire. Hence if you're genuinely annoyed, I wouldn't try to make it sound like they're already being awesome... – Mehrdad Jun 2 at 9:17
  • Perhaps a little late, but... I vote for being as transparent as you can be. When my wife was diagnosed, we were both open to our departments about the diagnosis and the chosen treatment path - we were both going to be out of the office for quite some time. We updated folks on a regular basis. Nobody was mean or nasty - they all understood and were understanding. Almost two years now (fingers crossed). By a certain point in life, almost everyone has been touched by cancer in some way - a parent, a friend, a spouse. – Jon Custer Jun 3 at 13:32
7

Homo sapiens is a social animal. Regardless or not of whether your behaviour is "any of their business", people who interact with you will notice it and notice the fact that what you are doing is different from what is "normal" in the working environment.

The simplest way to scratch that communal itch is to put the information out there. You don't need to give a lot of detail, just the basic facts - you were diagnosed, have had primary treatment, and are currently in remission.

You might also consider that cancer (in all its forms) is one of the largest causes of death. It would be surprising if no-one else in a work-group of 50 people has any experience of it, either personally or through friends or family members. From my own experience (after major surgery for bowel cancer) you may find that your "personal support network" grows, when you find out who those people are!

4

When I was diagnosed I was rather open about it, but did not tell more than a few people at work.
At the time I told those few I asked them to spread the word, so that the rest would hear it as well.

While you have waited a lot longer, my solution would still work for you, especially if you ask those people in the know to add that you do not want to talk about it.

Where I live it does not matter if management knows, and while on sick leave and partial work after returning I was on 100% pay. (Only in the second year of being on sick leave pay may change.) So for me it did not matter whom within the company knew. If it is different where you live and you want/need to keep the management from knowing you may need to restrict whom you tell and what you tell them, and therefor you may not want to ask people to tell others without keeping a hand in whom will be told.

3

2 choices:

  1. Tell them it's none of their business. Your manager knows the deal, and he/she approved your work schedule.

  2. Tell people. Do it one at a time, or as a group. Do you have a team meeting that you can take a moment? Maybe ask your manager for help? Perhaps he/she could share it for you if you're nervous in a group. Or perhaps if your manager approves, do a group email to everyone on your team and explain the time off, and that this is an ongoing issue.

If you ask for their patience, and tell them this is what's happening, only the coldest of hearts would hold it against you.

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    There's also a third option. Tell them your honeymoon was actually 2 weeks and that you were dealing with a personal matter for the other 3 weeks and that your boss approved of it and it was definitely not a 5 week honeymoon. – Nick Vitha May 31 at 20:46
  • @Vitha - Good point pointing out it’s nobody’s business the reason the author was out sick for 3 weeks. – Ramhound Jun 1 at 11:18
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Firstly, I hope everything turns out well for you. It sounds like you are doing everything you can to give your health the best chance. Quite right too!

If I understand correctly, you would rather keep the explanation for your extended absence and 4-day week to yourself (and your chosen trusted confidantes), but other people are starting to ask questions and you would like to know what to say to them.

I have had some personal matters to take care of, for which I needed some time away from work.

That's honestly all you need to say when the matter is raised. It doesn't need to be a big announcement to the whole team, you certainly don't need to give details or share anything that makes you uncomfortable, but when someone asks in a small group or one-on-one conversation, just say that - word will get around. Given that they might also want to work a 4-day week and wonder why they're not allowed, it's understandable that they might have had questions; but by making it clear that your situation is (a) unique to you and (b) personal, they should hopefully take the hint that it is not something you wish to discuss, and your new work arrangement is not something they should expect to be offered themselves. If they press for more information, simply repeat:

It's a personal matter.

You don't even need to add that you don't wish to talk about it; that's implicit in it being personal. People do not normally pry into something once they have expressly been told it is a personal matter - and having made it clear to them that that is what it is, if they do keep asking anyway, at this point you would be within your rights to ask their manager to privately tell them to stop.

3

I agree with all other answers, but I would give an additional advice. Don't give such personal details to management.

Because managers (e.g. in corporations with more than 1000 employees) have the instinctive ability to take advantage of your weakness when they need to crush you.

Homo hominis lupus est and in my work experience (I am 60 in two months and will retire in a few years) managers are slightly more "wolves" than the average colleague. And even when they seem to be your friends, they are not. They work for their own career, and then (and to a much lesser extent) for the interest of their company. Remember the Peter principle and even better the Dilbert principle, both stay relevant today. Read also the mind-provoking Bullshit jobs book. If you read French, read also La comédie (in)humaine (that book is a bit like the bullshit jobs book, but is proposing solutions; I really believe it deserves to be translated to English).

I was in a similar situation in the 1990s. My regret is to have trusted too much my management and given too much details to them. At that time, I was young.

PS. A real friend is the guy/gal taking a day off to support you at your mother's funeral. And I am not a native English speaker (since I am French).

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    Je suis entierment d'accord avec toi. Managers work for the company not for their subordinates. – Old_Fossil Jun 1 at 19:33
  • No, managers (in large corporations) don't work for their company, they work for their career. They don't care that much of their company – Basile Starynkevitch Jun 2 at 4:52
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    What I really meant was they don't care about those who answer to them. They will screw them if is to their benefit. Similarly the person that the manager answers to does not care about the manager or the manager's subordinate. I agree with not giving any unnecessary personal info to anyone in a corporate environment, – Old_Fossil Jun 2 at 6:35
  • But my point is that in practice, managers work more for their individual career than for the corporation paying them – Basile Starynkevitch Jun 2 at 6:42
2

If anybody says something about you only working 4 days a week, you say "well, I'm on a 32 hour contract" (or whatever your hours are, assuming it's 80% of what's customary in your country). Only the most stupid would then NOT realise that you work four days a week, and get paid four days a week. Or if they say how nice it would be for them, you can say "just go to your manager and ask them for a four day week. Of course your salary will go down. "

There is no need to tell anyone about your illness. It's your private business. If you are off to a doctor's appointment me and they ask, it is entirely fine to tell them that it is your private business and only your business.

  • While it is nobodies business, I have noticed work was much easier when the rest of the crowd new why I was away often and was easily distracted when at work. So do consider whether is it worth it to tell or not to tell. Being at work 80% of the time is not the same as working full speed 80% of the time. – Willeke Jun 2 at 10:13
0

Speak to your manager or an appropriate authority that is already in the know.

They ought to have an idea of how they would like the situation to play out and it sounds like they are more or less on your side. This approach has one big advantage and one big disadvantage:

Advantage: if anything goes wrong then management are more likely to support you. e.g. if they suggest keeping the illness secret then an employee leaves explicitly citing unfair treatment (because they can't work a 4-day week) then the manager will be less likely to blame you since you made a decision which seems reasonable to them. Even if they forget that they were the ones who made the decision they will still be inclined to believe it was a good decision.

Disadvantage: you lose control. Don't ask someone else to make the decision for you unless you trust their judgement.

0

This won't work for everyone, because some (well a lot, probable) of people are very private about things like this, but when I was diagnosed with MS nine years ago, I missed work for a week because I was admitted to the hospital and was on IV steroids. I was basically "out" about it from the moment I came back. I didn't make some big announcement or anything, but if anyone asked or said something like "Hey, missed you at whatever meeting last week" I was just blunt about it. "Yeah, sorry about that, I was in the hospital. Turns out I have MS." It was somewhat newsworthy for about a week and then everyone went about their business and life was normal. I do occasionally get the unwanted (and frequently ridiculous) medical advice, but I just say "Thanks, I look into that" and go about my business.

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Do so reluctantly. It's vain, and burdens them.

They don't need to know. They don't know how to react or what to say, it simply fills them with worry and awkwardness.

I think a big part of why you're willing to talk about it is because your outcomes are so good. That's getting common in oncology, but they don't know that.

They hear "blah blah blah cancer"... and can't avoid thinking and fearing the worst. When you assure them that your outcomes are quite good, they just think you're in the first stage of grief: denial.

Imagine someone telling you "I have AIDS, but AIDS is super well managed now, and I'll probably outlive it".

They're not all wrong. Common illness (like the flu) you shook off before, may now interact with this condition to create complications which turn into a snowball effect. It's very easy to be in denial about this.

My point being, all this is much too heavy for the workplace environment. Especially now. Maybe 15 years gone in 2033, a coworker is worrying about a friend who is diagnosed being in denial, and you pop up with "It's true, it's really survivable these days. I've had cancer since 2018, and I'm taking a pill they didn't even have then." And they all go "Wow, 15 years".

It also puts you in a disadvantage.

Again, coworkers hear "blah blah blah CANCER". And the first thing that goes to their mind is bus factor. Now, they don't want to give you responsibility or allow you to be a key employee. Because not only do you have cancer, you're delusional! In their search for potential key personnel, other people simply look better.

Figure out the "day off" thing.

Given the prognosis, and what you said in the third to last paragraph, I am concerned that your treatment path, or at least your support path, is heavily influenced by emotions moreso than reason. That sort of thing didn't work out for Steve Jobs. So have your emotional experience, but always, always, come back to reason.

I certainly realize that when all the doctors visiting you start to be oncologists, that is an emotional gut-punch of the highest order. It shatters any self-myth of immortality, and makes you realize your days are numbered (they always were) and makes you face some hard questions about the path of your life. This is where oncology turns into ontology. And ontology is heavy. There's great value there, but ontological realizations practically beg to be preached to others; that's a lot of what's going on with religion. Not a thing to do at work.

And "the need to fight back" really sounds like "the need to do SOMETHING". That's understandable. But there's plenty to do. First do the ontology - figure out your vision/mission/priority/big picture goals in your life -- then act to make that happen. Because you don't have forever anymore.

Anyway, it appears the 4-day schedule is not clinically required for physical healing, but is all about mental health. That's not nothing, but it is a yoke around your neck at the office. I would recommend moving past that need as quickly as possible, and get yourself back on a 5-day week.

As far as psychotherapy, don't let it become a long-term thing. It's an easy place to become mired, because it doesn't have a destination - it's to escape suffering and get to some amorphous blob called "normal" that seems to involve debting, cheap pizza and reruns of "The Middle". That's not really a destination, it's just fleeing. There needs to be a destination worth reaching, and that's where your big picture goals come in. I get much more value out of life coaches who help me become extraordinary.

Anyway, your feelings are real and deal with them, but seek to find a way to make that not cost you 1 workday a week. It's going to inhibit your career growth, and yeah - you still have one.

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    Sorry but while I appreciate you taking the time to read my post and answer I can’t help but think that your answering the wrong question. – A Z Jun 2 at 21:43

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