Telling Your Employer That You Have Breast Cancer

How to get the most out of a difficult conversation

work discussion
Mature businesswoman in discussion with colleague. Credit: Thomas Barwick

Telling your employer that you have breast cancer can bring mixed emotions.

You may not know how your boss will react or how supportive they might be. Perhaps you have never told your boss anything so personal and private and you are afraid it will change the way you are treated on the job.

Take some time to learn the benefits of telling your employer about your diagnosis and some useful questions you may need to ask. Being prepared for this conversation can boost your confidence and calm your jitters.

Benefits of Telling Your Employer About Your Cancer

Here are some good reasons to tell your boss about your diagnosis of breast cancer:

  • You will be protected from job discrimination by the ADA law if your boss is informed about your diagnosis.
  • You may need extra sick leave for cancer treatments and recovery. Your boss can connect you with your Human Resources office so you can receive additional sick leave hours and FMLA benefits.
  • Your treatment side effects may temporarily affect your job performance, so ask your boss for help or reasonable accommodations.

Prepare Yourself Before Talking To Your Boss

Before sharing this news with your employer, consider what facts they will need to know and how much detail you are willing to share.

You may know your general diagnosis, have a treatment schedule planned and know how side effects may affect your time at work. Write those down and if you may need to ask for reasonable accommodations, note those as well.

If you don't have many details yet, just gather up what you do know and prepare to be honest.

Having The Conversation About Cancer

Set a positive tone for the conversation and your boss will take their cues from your behavior.

  • If you are nervous, read from your prepared notes as you tell your boss about your diagnosis.
  • Remember, if your boss asks a question about your diagnosis or treatment and you have no ready answer, it is okay to say, "I don't know yet, but I will find out and let you know."
  • Ask that your private conversations with your boss be kept confidential.
  • Be honest about your emotions. You don't have to hide your feelings, but try to keep your tears from taking over the conversation.
  • Do keep notes about what you talked about, with whom, and when. File these under "Work Issues" in your health notebook.

Get the Straight Story on Sick Leave

Once you have told your boss that you have breast cancer, it is time to ask some questions and take notes. 

  • Your boss should know who is the best person to contact in the Human Resources office.
  • You can ask for a copy of the Sick Leave Policy and instructions on how to use the Sick Leave Pool if your employer has one.
  • Be sure to ask how to apply for FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) hours in case you need them.
  • Your employer may require some certification about your medical condition - ask what forms of certification will be needed.
  • If finances might become a problem, ask if there are any Employee Assistance Programs available to you.
  • Find out if there is a cancer support group in your company and how you can get connected with it.
  • If you've decided not to work through cancer treatment, ask if you can keep your employer's insurance benefits through the COBRA program.

Key Points About Telling Your Employer 

Although it may be difficult, it is in your best interest to tell your boss about your cancer diagnosis. You will get job protection, extra sick leave, and reasonable accommodations to help you work during treatment for breast cancer.

  • Prepare yourself, stay calm, and have the conversation in confidence.
  • Keep a paper trail of all documents relating to your sick leave, medical certification, company policies, and be sure to save copies of any emails or notes that you took along the way.
  • If you are uncertain and want professional advice about how to talk to your boss, speak with an oncology social worker, counselor, or patient advocate about work issues.
  • Keep the lines of communication open between you and your employer. They may become one of your great supporters.
4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Questions & answers about cancer in the workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

  2. American Cancer Society. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

  3. United States Department of Labor. The employee's guide to the Family and Medical Leave Act.

  4. National Cancer Institute. Going back to work.

By Pam Stephan
Pam Stephan is a breast cancer survivor.