What Do YOU Disclose? Cancer Survivors in the Workplace

Phyllis Johnson Health Guide

    A few weeks ago I found myself with twenty of my colleagues in a classroom doing chest compressions on plastic dummies.  Our school thinks we should know CPR, so there I was pressing away on a dummy's chest when my own chest and side muscles on the right started to cramp.


    I was wearing the compression sleeve that I always wear to prevent a lymphedema flare-up when I'm going to be exercising my right arm, but I hadn't realized that I would have so much trouble with cramping.  Because I had tumors on my chest wall, my surgeon took most of the chest muscles where my breast used to be.  When I reach to the left with my right arm, I sometimes have problems.  Stretching exercises help, but don't completely eliminate the cramping.

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    I did what I could the rest of the class.  When it was time to demonstrate what we learned to get our CPR certification, I told the instructor, who didn't know anything about my cancer history, that I wanted to do child CPR with my left arm.  He was OK with that, but also interested in why I was wearing a compression sleeve and what had happened to me. 


    Once again, I was faced with the choice that every cancer survivor faces regularly:  how much of my cancer history to disclose.


    Often I welcome the chance to talk about cancer.  It's an opportunity to tell people about the breast cancer that often doesn't show on a mammogram or present with a lump.  I'm passionate about breast health education. 


    However, at work I'm a little cautious.  I was diagnosed in April only a few days after I was hired for a teaching job in August.  One of the first things I had to do in my new job was tell my principal that I'd be in the middle of cancer treatment when school started.  I was afraid that the job offer might disappear, but I joined an amazingly compassionate faculty and staff who helped me get through learning a new job while on chemo and radiation.


    Seven years later when I moved to North Carolina and began a new job, I didn't tell anyone right away that I was a cancer survivor.  I was ready for people to know me without the cancer label first.  Of course, I eventually told the people I work with most closely.  I'm proud to be a cancer survivor, and my volunteer work in the cancer community is a big part of who I am now.  I tell my students at the beginning of the year so that they aren't alarmed when I show up with lymphedema bandages.


    I feel bad when cancer complications mean I can't pull my full weight at work.  Neuropathy in my feet has kept me from hiking on rough terrain on field trips.  I have to be careful about activities that can cause lymphedema flare-ups.  I will NOT go into a muddy cave wearing an expensive prosthesis (or no prosthesis), so my colleagues had to cover for me on the three occasions when caving was on the schedule.


    Most of the activities I can't do are not at the heart of teaching, so I don't feel too guilty about asking for accommodations.  Chemobrain is a different issue.  I'm better now, but sometimes I am writing a simple word on the board and simply can not remember how to spell it.  I know that I don't have the concentration and focus I had before cancer.  My number memory is shot.  I almost never mention these problems at work because they are at the heart of my profession, and because I have found my own ways around them that don't prevent me from being a good teacher.


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    Although the Americans with Disabilities Act prevents discrimination against cancer survivors and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations, the decision to disclose may be difficult.  I have heard stories about women promised support at work when they were first diagnosed only to find out later that they were being laid off.  Although their employers denied that the cancer diagnosis was the cause, the women felt that it was.


    I'm curious about how other cancer survivors negotiate the delicate balancing act between being a good employee and taking care of their health.  What do you tell your supervisor and colleagues about your cancer history?  I know there are stories out there of wonderful workplace support as well as cautionary tales about disclosing too much.  Please share your workplace story with others who are deciding who and what to tell at work.




Published On: August 17, 2009