Cancer Disclosure in the Workplace

Olivia Rothgeb, Marketing and Communications Intern

It can be difficult to decide what information to disclose at your workplace when navigating a cancer diagnosis. You may question whether or not to share your diagnosis with coworkers, what information you’ll be required to tell your employer, and how to receive workplace benefits such as time off or reasonable accommodations for your condition. LUNGevity has partnered with Triage Cancer to help people with lung cancer navigate these questions and the practical and legal issues that may arise after receiving a cancer diagnosis.

Triage Cancer has helped cancer patients, their caregivers, and healthcare professionals by providing free educational resources about legal concerns for the past decade. Monica Bryant, an advocate, cancer rights attorney, and co-founder of Triage Cancer, hopes to inform patients about their options and educate them about their legal rights in the workplace so that they can feel empowered to make their own decisions. 

What am I required to disclose to my employer? 

In most circumstances, employees are never required to share any medical information with their employers. However, sharing some information about your health may be necessary to access legal protections such as reasonable accommodations or medical leave. Your employer is entitled to ensure that you are eligible for the benefits you request. Still, you may not have to disclose that you have been diagnosed with cancer or provide details about the type of cancer you have been diagnosed with. You can use practical strategies to ensure that you can provide some medical information to ensure access to those legal protections while maintaining your privacy.

How can I access workplace benefits while keeping my cancer diagnosis private?

To access legal protections such as reasonable accommodation or medical leave, employers will ask for a “medical certification” form completed by your healthcare provider. This form certifies that you have a medical condition that gives you access to these legal protections and indicates that you would like to use them.

It is extremely important to have a conversation with your healthcare provider before they fill out this form to discuss your preferences regarding whether you would like to disclose your cancer diagnosis. If you would like to keep your diagnosis private, Cancer Rights Attorney, Monica Bryant, recommends that patients work together with their healthcare team to share only the information necessary to grant them access to the workplace benefits that they need. Often this can be done by focusing on the side effects of treatment.

“We never encourage people to be untruthful. However, keep in mind that there are strategies to being truthful while still maintaining privacy,” Monica says. She recommends that patients leverage the side effects of their cancer treatment (such as severe nausea or fatigue) on their medical certification so that a primary healthcare physician can complete the form rather than their oncologist.

How can I avoid accidental disclosure? 

Monica explains that one of the most common experiences she has at Triage Cancer relates to individuals' accidental disclosure of their cancer diagnosis in the workplace. She says, “We see a lot of incidents of accidental or inadvertent disclosure, which as an advocate can be upsetting. I hate to hear patients say, ‘I wish I would have known, or had I known, I would have made different choices.’ We want people to be able to make their own educated decisions.” Monica warns that some employers may create their own versions of the medical certification forms that could potentially ask for information that an employee legally does not have to share. Therefore, she encourages healthcare professionals to only fill out “the model form,” which does not have any reference to a patient’s diagnosis. 

Another common situation that Monica sees is people accidentally revealing their cancer diagnosis through their social media activity. While social media support groups on platforms such as Facebook and fundraising efforts through sites such as Go-Fund-Me can be helpful for people with cancer, you should be aware of the role that it plays in this information becoming “Googleable” public knowledge. Monica encourages patients to change their accounts to the highest privacy settings and communicate with friends and family about their disclosure preferences so that they won’t encounter any instances of accidental disclosure through social media. 

More about Cancer Disclosure 

Still have questions about navigating cancer in the workplace? Visit Triage Cancer’s website to learn more about the following:

  1. Working through treatment: What tools exist to help you work through your cancer treatment? Learn more about reasonable accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act or similar state fair employment laws, and how to take time off if needed.
  2. Taking time off (long term): What are the implications of long-term leave? Learn about replacing the lost income and what to do if you receive healthcare insurance through your job. 
  3. Returning to work: How do I return to work? Learn more about returning to the workplace after taking time off. 

As co-founder of Triage Cancer, Monica advocates for patients navigating the practical and legal issues surrounding cancer disclosure. “We are not saying disclosing or not disclosing is better than the other. It’s more about giving people all of the information they need to make the right decision for them.” To schedule a call with a member of the Triage Cancer staff to discuss any practical or legal cancer-related issue, visit Triagecancer.org to fill out their online form and find more free resources. 

 

More resources:

Quick Guide to Disclosure, Privacy, & Medical Certification Forms TriageCancer.org/QuickGuide-disclosure 

Triage Cancer Explains: Privacy Choices After a Cancer Diagnosis triagecancer.org/video-disclosure 

HCP - Quick Guide to Helping Navigate Patients Through Disclosure Decisions TriageCancer.org/QuickGuide-DisclosureHCP

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