Disclosing Illness

This week’s #hcldr topic is one that I have been mulling over for a while. I wasn’t sure how or if I wanted to attempt it, but several events over the past few days have spurred me to make the attempt. So this week, we will be discussing the topic of disclosing illness/impairment.

I know what some of you are thinking…is HCLDR tackling a political issue? Did the US President’s recent encounter with COVID-19 and subsequent White House opaqueness over the exact nature of his condition inspire this chat? Are we finally wading into politics? The answer is a resounding no.

This week’s chat is not inspired by a President but by a King.

On 28 August 2020 the King of Wakanda, portrayed by talented actor Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer. It was a shock to almost everyone. Boseman had kept his condition hidden from all but those closest to him. Some of his best and most recognizable roles came after this diagnosis in 2016 including Black Panther and 21 Bridges.

As a die-hard comic fan, I was devastated at the news. Over time, I became fascinated by the story of how and why he kept his cancer private. Hollywood Insider, interviewed Boseman’s close friends and found out the following:

“He was just living his artistic life to the fullest and using his time and his moment to really affect people.”

“Chadwick did not want to have people fuss over him. He was a very private person.”

“Some people wait a lifetime to get the opportunity that he had and Chad had so much wisdom, so much knowledge, so much inside of him that he wasn’t going to let this disease stop him from telling these amazing stories and showing his art in the prime of his life.”

There is no law that compels an individual to disclose a medical condition. However there are certain occupations where there is an expectation that an employee notify their employer if they are unable to carry out their duties. A firefighter, police officer, airline pilot, and any job where an illness or impairment puts the public at risk.

Having said that, in most countries (including Canada and the US), if an employee voluntarily discloses a medical condition – like cancer – then there are laws that protect that employee. A GQ article about Boseman’s death summed it up nicely:

“The decision of whether to disclose a serious diagnosis like cancer to an employer is frequently a fraught one. Under federal law, no one is required to tell their employer as long as they assume they can reasonably do the work required, but disclosure is necessary to trigger the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the main federal statute protecting cancer patients in the workplace.

For many workers, having cancer in the workplace, even with the protections of the A.D.A., can be extremely difficult. To start with, the 30-year-old law does not protect independent contractors or those who work in businesses with fewer than 15 employees. But even employees covered by the law can still face discrimination, as some courts have ruled that extended periods of leave for cancer treatment can be legitimate grounds for termination.

To me, disclosing an illness is a personal choice, except when it could endanger the lives of others. I recognize that some people would prefer the world to know so that they can get support or at least understanding of why they need to suddenly retreat from their normal life. I also recognize that some would prefer not to be treated any differently and would rather endure on their own rather than burden friends or family.

In the past, I was firmly in the non-disclosure camp, but now I believe the polar opposite. I would disclose my medical condition because (a) I realize now that there is likely to be many people who have gone through the exact same thing who I could learn from and get support from; and (b) You never know who might have heard of a new treatment or procedure that could help.

What triggered me to bring this topic forward on HCLDR this week? Two things happened today (Monday). First, a person at the company where my wife works sent out an email to let everyone know he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and would not be in the office over the next few weeks. Second, I was on a video call with someone who literally learned that they were cancer-free and I had no idea they had been battling cancer.

Join the HCLDR community on Tuesday October 6th at 8:30pm ET (for your local time click here) when we will be discussing the following:

  • T1 Do you feel people treat others differently when they reveal an illness/impairment or have you personally experienced this?
  • T2 Would you or have you revealed a medical condition? What would/did make you decide to do so?
  • T3 What other protections or accommodations should the law or society offer to people who are suddenly diagnosed with an chronic condition, impairment or illness?
  • T4 As individuals, how can we better support someone who reveals they have an incurable illness or condition? Is there a right way to offer support?

References

Cohen, Rachel. “You Don’t Have to Tell Your Employer About a Serious Diagnosis—But You Still Might Want To”, GQ, 31 August 2020, https://www.gq.com/story/diagnosis-employer-chadwick-boseman, accessed 6 October 2020

Chuba, Kristen. “Chadwick Boseman’s Inner Circle on His Secret Cancer Battle: ‘He Was a Very Private Person’”, The Hollywood Reporter, 2 September 2020, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/chadwick-bosemans-inner-circle-on-his-secret-cancer-battle-he-was-a-very-private-person, accessed 6 October 2020

Dube, Dani-Elle. “Are you required to tell your employer if you have a disability?”, Global News, 6 March 2018, https://globalnews.ca/news/4063742/are-you-required-to-tell-your-employer-if-you-have-a-disability/, accessed 6 October 2020

Whitmell, Clare. “When to disclose illness to a potential employer”, The Guardian, 23 July 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/careers/careers-blog/disclosing-illness-to-employer, accessed 6 October 2020

Feiler, Bruce. “Whom Do You Tell When You’re Sick? Maybe Everyone You Know”, The New York Times, 4 March 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/04/style/health-sick-illness-medical-conditions-social-media.html, accessed 6 October 2020

Hilton, Shona et al. “Disclosing a cancer diagnosis to friends and family: a gendered analysis of young men’s and women’s experiences.” Qualitative Health Research, June 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2715137/, accessed 6 October 2020

Livingston, Ruth. “Secrets and Health: Keeping Illness Hidden”, Psychology Today, 25 November 2012, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/contemporary-psychoanalysis-in-action/201211/secrets-and-health-keeping-illness-hidden, accessed 6 October 2020

“Telling Others About Your Cancer”, American Cancer Society, https://www.cancer.org/treatment/understanding-your-diagnosis/telling-others-about-your-cancer.html, accessed 6 October 2020

Image Credit

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

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