But software developer Douglas Reilly is advocating a more open approach, one inspired by his own experience coming out as a cancer survivor in a field where a single person can hold the key to an entire company's success.
Douglas Reilly, and his wife, Jean
"You do need to have some sort of contingency planning in place," says Reilly, emphasizing that source code needs to be available for whoever takes over during interruptions in work.
Reilly, a resident of Brick, N.J., who owns a small software development company called Access Microsystems, says he has a genetic predisposition toward cancers of all sorts. At 50, he's already licked liver cancer, and he's now fighting a type of colon cancer--mucinous adenocarcinoma--considered to be incurable. But he's surpassed the age of his father and brother, who both died by age 48 of cancers they hardly talked about with anyone outside the family, let alone to employers.
Having experienced both a treatable cancer and one that--for now anyway--is not, Reilly, a father of two, felt compelled to share his knowledge with colleagues in the technology industry. The result was an article, titled "Coming out as a Cancer Survivor: A Guide for Software Developers," that Reilly posted earlier this year on the Red Gate Software site, Simple Talk.
Reilly's piece quickly created an online buzz, which was fueled by a posting on the popular technology news forum Slashdot. In plain terms, Reilly discusses the range of cancers, from cured to curable to incurable. He also notes the rise in cancer survivorship thanks to advances in medical treatments and cites inspirational survival stories such as that of professional cyclist Lance Armstrong (Reilly himself likes to bike).
In the article, which has gotten more than 50,000 page views on Simple Talk, according to Reilly, he also gives advice on how to break the news to co-workers, recommending you let them know in general terms and not bring it up over and over again.
"Unless you want to be known as 'cancer guy' (or gal), let others lead any further discussion of what's going on with your care," wrote Reilly, who specializes in ASP.net and mobile development and has authored several programming books.
Privacy laws in some cases prohibit employers from discussing an employee's medical condition, according to several human-resources experts. And the employee is not legally required to share a thing. But Reilly believes developers have a moral responsibility to do so.
While tailored toward developer-types, much of Reilly's advice can be applied more broadly, such as: "Make sure you are not indispensable."
He also encourages those with cancer to do independent online research. Even the best doctors leave their work behind at the end of the day, he notes. "If you don't take control of managing your disease, chances are you're going to get so-so treatment," he says.
Some of the feedback to the article, particularly on Slashdot, was less than positive. One reader, for example, had trouble understanding how someone with terminal cancer could even be bothered with source codes and clients.
But overall, readers were thankful to Reilly for opening the topic up for discussion. Reilly was particularly gratified to hear from those who were going through similar experiences and felt his article helped.
Shachar Shemesh, for example, an Israeli programming consultant, read Reilly's article just before he got final confirmation of his Hodgkin's disease. Shemesh took Reilly's advice and shared news of his treatable lymphoma with clients and co-workers, preparing them for his impending chemotherapy. He was amazed by the positive response.
"Practically all of them took it well," said Shemesh, who recently founded Lingnu Open Source Consulting. "I haven't lost business because of it. Everyone was really supportive and understanding. There was no negative reaction."