I Can’t Have Cancer, I’m the Boss

Amy Luscher Smith   •   March 1, 2019

work white board

I was sitting at my desk, reviewing documents that needed my signature and trying to act like things were normal. Being back in the office a few hours at a time after my lumpectomy, felt like a gift. Time in the normal world, with normal work problems to solve, and normal work things to do like responding to e-mails and signing documents.

In my door comes our technology director, then three or four application support team members, my service desk staff piled in, too, and our project manager, two business systems analysts, three of our contract staff. They surrounded my desk, taking up every inch of space in my office.

“Um, is this an intervention?” I asked, my voice a bit wobbly.

One of the staff pulled a huge vase of flowers out from behind her back. There were Star-gazer Lilies, gorgeous creamy white and delicately pink; Carnations; a tall, slender purple flower; bunches of greenery; and wispy white Baby’s Breath. I had never received as big a bunch of flowers in my life.

My eyes immediately filled with tears.

“I’m okay. Well, I’m going to be okay. And, you’ll never know how much I appreciate this.” I wiped my eyes. The entire room, filled with people, felt like a cozy, place of safety, where laughter and friendship and support blocked out the fear and uncertainty. In that moment, I knew that no matter what happened, I would be okay.

What happens when you are the boss and you receive a cancer diagnosis?

I had been serving in an executive role for about four years, when I was diagnosed. It never occurred to me not to tell the staff. After understanding what my treatment plan would look like, I don’t know how I could have kept it a secret.

If you work with staff in a leadership role, here is what I have learned:

Communicate your own story
Guess how fast gossip flies throughout your organization? If you want the facts shared—the real facts—then, make plans to share them yourself. Unfortunately, the many, continued appointments leading up to a cancer diagnosis can clue your teams in to what may be happening. I decided to control the flow of information early in my diagnosis. As soon as I had facts, I shared them with each of the teams that I supervise. I was clear and open. I cried a bit; so did some of them. It was important to me to be able to tell my story on my terms. One way to lead your team well is to show them that you don’t always have all the answers but that you can be trusted to share them when you do.

Tell your employees how your cancer will affect them
Let’s face it. While cancer is all about you, a boss’s cancer diagnosis in the workplace will leave employees wondering how it will impact them. Even the best employees will express care, shock, sadness, support; then, they will wonder how your illness will affect their work. Will you be there to help guide them through a critical project? Who will approve their time away in your absence? How will they get the support they need? Will they have to take on more work?

Employees look to leaders for stability and security, and a boss with cancer can lead to unanticipated feelings among the team. Some of my employees experienced guilt: “I don’t want to bother Amy with this. I need to work it out on my own.” Some experienced abandonment: “If Amy had been in that meeting, things would have gone differently with that project.” Some experienced anxiety: “If Amy can’t come back to work, who will be our boss?”

Try to determine what questions your team will have during each period of your journey. If you’re not sure, ask them. Then, make it a priority to communicate the answers on a regular basis from wherever you are. If you can find another senior leader to fill in while you are out of the office, share this connection with them and encourage them to use this person just as they would you.

Put plans in place to keep leading
For me, continued stability in my absence was my primary goal for my teams. Here are a few ways I established a sense of order and security for my teams:

  • Assign a point person for the team to go to in your absence. Use this person to pass along anything the staff need from you and keep track of how you or someone else are responding to the staff needs to ensure responses happen timely.
  • Set up a routine communication. This could be a weekly call, a daily touchpoint e-mail, or a monthly message sent through an assigned point person. Share your health updates as well as any work-related information they will need from you. I posted my treatment plan on the white board in my office. It helped staff know when I was away and we marked off the milestones together.
  • Ask an executive colleague to meet with teams often. Have them share what is going on in the larger corporate environment and how your teams are being perceived. Encourage your teams to share challenges and ask for help with barriers. This can go a long way in alleviating anxiety that there is no advocate for them during your absence.
  • Communicate the boundaries you feel comfortable with in terms of help. You may appreciate a staff member taking over a project to finish it, but you may prefer that they not come by the house with prepared food. Let your teams know in advance where you need help and why.

How can you better help ensure your job is taken care of in your absence?

What questions would you have if your boss was diagnosed with a serious health condition?

What one way can you improve your work communication to make sure you set health work boundaries?