13 February 2020: Do I disclose my cancer diagnosis at work? My first instinct was to be completely open and tell everybody and anybody who’s interested. After all, cancer affects lots of people and it’s good to show and share vulnerability, right?
Over the last few weeks, doubts have crept in. What if my clients feel they can’t rely on my services and start looking for alternative service providers? If they are planning a new project, they would actually be wise to do that. After all nobody, including me, knows how much I am going to be knocked out by this cancer and my treatment.
What if colleagues and associates start thinking I will take my foot off the gas and let the team down? They might also be wise to start looking for alternative partners for future projects. Maybe they will want to replace me on existing jobs too.
There is also an ethical issue – I have to disclose the risk to my clients who rely on me for business services. Undoubtedly, there is going to be at least some interruption of supply. It’s two weeks to my date for major internal surgery. On the other hand, my surgeon says one of his patients went back to work within a week.
Inner journey: will disclosure make me feel more sick?
I still feel completely fit and well. I want to work and play as hard as ever. And I don’t want to be left out of new projects and opportunities. Will people think I am “over the hill?” I begin to shrink the circle of people I plan to tell. Deeper down, I realise that I just want to BE well. And curtailing the flow of information about my unwellness seems like a way to keep myself well.
That’s a false “solution” to a real problem. The real problem is that I now have evidence proving that the very normal division and mutation of cells in my body has gone wrong in a deeply dangerous way. Hiding that information won’t make it go away. Actually my instinct is that keeping quiet might help me FEEL better. But somehow the voice inside me is more comforted by the idea that this is helping me to BE well. Irrational but real for me.
Disclosure to colleagues and clients: my professional standing
There remains a real professional question about whom to inform and when. I consult others in my professional circles. Somebody who went through a very similar illness a few years ago says
“I just carried on working flat out, determined not to let the cancer beat me. I was determined not to let my small business fail. Six months later I had a complete breakdown from the stress.”
She advises me not to follow that route. She doesn’t have easy answers about what happens to my business.
In the end I decide to keep most of my news to family and friends and close colleagues. I am not proud of keeping this quiet. Yet I realise I don’t know how to convey the complexity of my status. To most people “cancer” sounds like a death sentence, but I am fit and well and mentally strong and unlikely to die soon. My professional career is not over even though I have cancer.
I do phone key clients and warn them that I will be off work for a couple of weeks. It takes me a full year to make my first post about my cancer on LinkedIn. And I make a firm commitment to cut back on work. I clear my diary for the entire month after my surgery.
Then I make an exception: I’ve enrolled people from across central and southern Africa for a course in mid-March and I tell myself I will be back on my feet in time for that.
Future posts will track my see-saw journey to find a new equilibrium of work and care for self and others. And what happens to my professional standing as more people get to know about my cancer disclosure. People are also starting to talk about this new coronavirus perhaps spreading worldwide.