How to Tell Your Employer You Have Cancer

Woman talking with coworker in office
Portra/iStockphoto/Getty Images

Talking to your employer about your cancer diagnosis can be intimidating. You may be worried about his reaction and the way in which you'll be treated at the office. When approaching this conversation, keep in mind that the law protects you from any type of discrimination.

If you're nervous, get to know these laws before you sit down with your boss. It may be the first time your employer has had an employee with cancer and he may be unfamiliar with the laws that protect your rights and your ability to take leave.

Even if you have a great relationship with your employer, it's important to be as open and honest as possible. The more your boss knows, the more he can help you.

Do Your Research

Several U.S. laws protect people with disabling chronic illness from workplace discrimination. You should be aware of these laws before beginning a conversation with your boss. This situation may not have come up before in your workplace, so you may need to be the one who ensures your rights are protected from the beginning.

Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

People with cancer account for 2.5 percent of ADA complaints. ADA protects workers against discrimination in the process of hiring, firing, promotions, training opportunities, and many other activities.

The law also requires that employers make reasonable accommodations, so that people with a disability or disabling chronic illness are able to function in the workplace. Accommodations can include anything from modifying a work schedule to altering the physical workplace to make it accessible.

Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

This law allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of leave in a 12-month period. During this leave, an employee's job is protected and that person must be considered for any promotions she might be eligible for.

You can take the leave in one 12-week block or it can be taken in smaller increments as long as the reason for the leave is the same. A parent, child, or spouse can also take FMLA leave. You are only eligible for FMLA leave if you have worked with your employer a year and have put in 1,250 hours throughout the previous 12 months.

In some rare cases, employers may not be required to provide leave, such as if the company has fewer than 50 employees, but many may still provide it. Talk to your human resources representative if you will be requiring FMLA leave.

Talk With Your Doctor

In addition to learning your legal protections, it's important to talk with your doctor and to evaluate your situation. Ask your doctor if he thinks you'll need time off for treatments or to recover from surgery. You can also ask about how most people feel during treatment and if he/she has any recommendations regarding your work schedule.

You should also think carefully about, and make a list of, any accommodations you might need. For example, if you are nervous about how you'll feel during chemotherapy, be sure to mention the possibility of a modified work schedule to your employer. If you aren't sure what you'll require, be sure to say that you'll get back to your boss when you know more. Just don't assure them that everything will continue as normal because you don't want to set up unrealistic expectations.

Bring your list of possible accommodations and doctor's recommendations with you when you talk with your boss. Also, don't forget to take a few blank sheets of paper. Regardless of your relationship with your boss, it's important to keep records of your conversations regarding your cancer diagnosis. You should make a copy of any recent performance reviews. If you should have problems with your employer in the future, careful records can prove invaluable.

Starting the Conversation

Depending on your workplace setting, you may want to make an appointment with your boss to discuss your diagnosis. If so, be sure to arrive on time, with all your notes handy. Before beginning, take a deep breath. Most employers are more than willing to work with people who are dealing with illness.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  • "Taking Time: Support for People With Cancer." May 2014. National Cancer Institute.
  • "Americans with Disabilities Act: Information for People Facing Cancer." 11/21/2014. American Cancer Society.
  • "Family and Medical Leave Act." 11/21/2014. American Cancer Society.