Talking to Co-Workers About a Cancer Diagnosis

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When a cancer diagnosis strikes a close colleague, it's hard to know the "right" response. Some people prefer not to talk about their condition for fear of being treated differently, while others may be open about it and welcome the conversation as a therapeutic tool.

As a friend and co-worker, what should you do? Not saying anything might seem as though you don't care; asking uninvited questions could appear pushy.

The etiquette of cancer in the workplace takes on a different meaning when working at a cancer center, as Dana-Farber's own staff can attest. And those members of the Dana-Farber family who have battled cancer offer words of wisdom: Knowing the appropriate response to a colleague's diagnosis means taking cues from how the patient is dealing with it — and if you are unsure, asking them.

The day before Thanksgiving in 2006, Federico Bernal, PhD, a pediatric oncology research scientist, woke up with back pain. At first he thought it was from lifting his young daughter or an old hockey injury acting up. He popped some Advil and went to work.

At the lab bench, the pain resurfaced and Bernal realize it wasn't coming from his back.

"I had a eureka moment," he recalls. "I went to the bathroom and did a testicular self exam and noticed there was a problem."

After a few tests in the emergency room, Bernal, then 32, was told he had four masses in his right testicle and that he needed surgery. One of his first calls, after family, was to his lab head Loren Walensky, MD, PhD.

"I called Loren on Thursday to tell him and he was incredibly supportive. When I saw him the following Monday, he had already scoured through the research and treatment options for testicular cancer and told me I was going to be OK," recalls Bernal.

The news of Bernal's cancer diagnosis spread to lab members and colleagues after he canceled a conference presentation to have his surgery instead. "A lot of people wanted to know what was going on. It didn't bother me to talk about it," he says. "The day of my surgery I received many emails and text messages from lab members and colleagues. I remember how caring everyone was."

Being cancer researchers, his co-workers understood the mechanics behind the disease, so talk was more frank. For others who need more extensive treatment, are out for long periods of time, or don't work in scientific fields, it can be trickier.

Mary McElroy was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2002, while she was then director of Grants and Contracts at Dana-Farber. She recalls inviting her team into her office and telling them the news.

"They were all shocked," says McElroy, who retired in August 2008 after working at Dana-Farber for 28 years. "I said it was okay for people to ask me questions. Most didn't want to ask because they didn't want to invade my privacy, but I know they were curious. I briefly reassured people I was going to be OK."

After taking time off for surgery and chemotherapy, McElroy worked part time from home for several months with the support of her supervisor.

When she returned to work, McElroy remembers, it was important for her to set the tone about how her cancer was going to be discussed.

"I became very matter of fact about it and made it not a big deal," she says. "When I came back, people's first reaction was they wanted me to be OK and they would say 'Mary, you look great.' They don't mean anything by it, but I would think, I don't care how I look — ask me how I feel."

McElroy says her experience showed her that people aren't prepared for the fact that someone with cancer may feel physically or emotionally bad for a long time. It was often easier for her to relieve people's concerns and fears and say she was fine, even when it wasn't true.

"No matter how good your diagnosis is, and mine was the best, you don't recover from knowing you have cancer," she says. "It's never far from your mind. It changes you; it changes your priorities."