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Navigating awkward work conversations

Co-workers mean well, but you don't have to discuss your health if you don't want to

By Rex W. Huppke, Tribune Newspapers

8:10 PM EDT, September 26, 2012

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There are few secrets in the workplace.

People are too curious, too gossipy, too talkative. The details of our personal lives invariably spill over and co-workers are drawn to sympathize, empathize, celebrate — whatever response seems appropriate.

So if you're returning to work as a breast cancer survivor, or if your diagnosis is new or treatment is ongoing, it's likely you'll have to choose how to discuss your health with people at work.

This is the most important advice I can give: Do what makes YOU the most comfortable — nothing more and nothing less.

You see, there is no single correct approach. One cancer survivor will find solace in opening up to co-workers and sharing all the details of the experience. Another will feel wholly uncomfortable discussing personal matters and will, for the sake of their own recovery, reveal only the smallest amount of information, if any.

"Some women want to put this behind them and don't want that public discussion about their medical condition," said Bonnie Gordon, a breast cancer survivor and board member of the Chicago affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. "Others want to share. It's a very private and individual decision."

Gordon is director of cause marketing for Walgreens. She was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time in 2009. She decided to be open about it.

"I had to say to my bosses, 'Guess what, I have breast cancer again,'" Gordon said. "I had to tell them that this time I had to have a double mastectomy. I had six people working under me and I had to sit them down and say, 'Guys, I'm going to be OK, but I'm going to be out for a while.'"

Gordon's staff was younger, in their 20s and 30s, and she felt they were looking to see how she would react — they were taking cues from her.

"I told them, 'I'm going to tell you exactly what's happening. I'm going to be honest. And when I come back, you can ask me anything you want.'"

Undoubtedly, there are advantages to this approach. It allows a person to confront the inevitable curiosity and concerns of co-workers head on and, in a sense, dictate the rules of engagement.

However, if being this open and direct isn't your style, take a different path. Maybe you just want to say: "Thanks so much for your concern, but I'm really not ready to talk about it right now."

A smart tip from the American Cancer Society is to jot down responses to potential co-worker questions and comments ahead of time. Remember, this is something you control. Make a decision that suits you emotionally — and don't let anyone else dictate what you share.

20 percent of survivors face work limitations two to three years after their diagnoses, evidence suggests. They often return to work only to find a "culture of ignorance," according to 2011 research published in the European Journal of Cancer Care. The study showed most employees didn't realize that up to a quarter of breast cancer survivors experience residual fatigue for many months after treatment.

rhuppke@tribune.com