This video was originally published by Cancer Support Community on April 29, 2015, here.
When Marybeth heard the word “cancer” she felt like the floor had fallen out from under her. She had a million questions. So many, in fact, she was too overwhelmed to ask a single one the day she was diagnosed. However, as she absorbed the diagnosis and read the materials her doctor had given her, she began to have non-medical questions. Such as, what would happen to her job if she needed a lot of time off? How much of the cost of treatment would be covered by her insurance?
Marybeth debated telling her boss of her diagnosis. She wanted to know her options for taking time off, and if they’d be willing to let her work from home sometimes. However, she was also afraid of how her boss might react. She’d been working at the company for less than a year. And Marybeth was a single mom of a teenage son. She relied on her job to pay the bills and provide medical insurance. She was terrified her employer would cut her hours or even let her go.
Fortunately for Marybeth, people with cancer are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It is illegal to fire someone because of a cancer diagnosis and employers must provide reasonable accommodations for employees who have cancer. However, even with legal protections in place, it’s important to prepare before telling your employer of your diagnosis.
Know When to Tell Your Employer
Marybeth waited until after she’d met with her oncologist and agreed on a treatment plan before telling her boss. To her surprise, her boss seemed supportive and offered to work with her on adjusting the work schedule and asked human resources to send Marybeth information on taking FMLA (Family & Medical Leave Act) leave.
However, it’s not enough to know if you’ll have surgery or how many chemotherapy sessions you might need. Before talking to an employer, you should know how the treatment plan might affect you physically and emotionally. Your doctor can provide insight into how most people respond to treatment. It’s also a good idea to read or listen to patient experiences to get an appreciation for how diagnosis and treatment might affect energy level, ability to concentrate, and ability to handle stress or fight off an infection. The Patient Empowerment Network provides numerous resources to equip cancer patients and their caregivers with that kind of robust perspective.
While there’s no guarantee your experience will be like someone else’s, the more you know about the possibilities, the better prepared you are to talk to your boss. There will still be unknowns and you should explain this to your employer. It’s ok to say, “I don’t know.” Ideally telling your employer about your diagnosis is just the first of several discussions. Consider scheduling ongoing conversations with your supervisor to evaluate your needs and adjust.
Know What to Tell Your Employer
Most people find it helpful to write down what they want to say before their first time sharing information about their cancer. When talking to an employer you should cover:
- The diagnosis
- How your treatment may possibly affect your work
- Ways you and your employer can work together to overcome the challenges of working during treatment, or—if you are taking medical or disability leave—the challenges of returning to work after treatment
The more you know, the better you’ll be at communicating what you expect and what adjustments you and your employer might need to make. You needn’t ask for these accommodations immediately. But it’s worth knowing what kinds of accommodations might be available.
The most obvious accommodation during and after treatment is time off. Cancer patients should consider not just the time off for surgery and medical appointments, but time to deal with fatigue or secondary illnesses. Some cancer patients request extra breaks during the day to rest or take medicine. Other common accommodations are temporary or permanent reassignment to less physically demanding roles, or permission to work from home. The federally funded Job Accommodation Network can provide a wealth of suggestions. It is often the employee who identifies the need and the most appropriate accommodation, not the employer, so familiarizing yourself with possible options is helpful.
An employer is not required to grant every requested accommodation. They only need to agree to accommodations that don’t create a hardship for them. They can require essential job duties be fulfilled and they don’t have to lower productivity requirements. Your employer may counter your requested accommodation with an alternative that is easier for them to implement. Most employers are willing to work with their employees to find an arrangement that works. However, the burden for educating them about your needs and accommodations to support your success may fall to you.
Know Who to Tell at Work
You don’t have to tell an employer about your cancer at all. An employer can’t ask about an employee’s medical situation unless they believe a medical condition is negatively affecting job performance or workplace safety.
However, your employer needs to know you have cancer for you to be protected by the ADA. It is within your employer’s rights to ask for medical documentation if you request disability or medical leave.
Once you have decided you have enough information about what to expect during and after treatment, start by telling your direct supervisor. He or she may ask you questions you aren’t able to answer and that’s ok. Your goal is to open communication and set expectations. Don’t expect your supervisor to be familiar with your protections under ADA. However, your company’s Human Resources department should be. If your supervisor doesn’t inform HR after you disclose your diagnosis, you should.
After that, it’s up to you who you would like to tell. Your employer is not allowed to tell other employees about your medical situation, not even if coworkers notice you receiving accommodations and ask about it. It is up to you which coworkers to tell. Some people tell only a trusted coworker. Some people want everyone they work with to know.
Decide how much information you want to share. If you are comfortable sharing your story, this is a great opportunity to educate others. People will likely make assumptions about your ability to work, or your long-term prognosis. They may comment on changes to your physical appearance or ask personal questions. Most people have beliefs about cancer that are incorrect or based on experiences that have little to do with your diagnosis and treatment. People are rarely intentionally nosy or hurtful. However, if you feel comments or questions are excessive or constitute harassment, report it to your company’s human resources right away. This is a form of discrimination and your employer has an obligation to address it.
Keep a Record
Even if your employer responds well to your initial conversation and grants accommodations, it’s a good idea to keep track of discussions you have with your boss or human resources office. Keep copies of emails related to your diagnosis and requests. Also, keep copies performance reviews or other documents related to your job performance. This documentation will be helpful if you feel your cancer diagnosis or accommodations are ever held against you.
Discrimination can sometimes be subtle, such as being excluded from meetings or being disregarded for assignments or promotions. You have 180 days from the date of an incident of discrimination to report it to the EEOC, which is another reason to keep records.
Marybeth wasn’t aware of all the protections of the ADA and that those protections continued even after she’d completed her treatments and returned to work full time. Six months after her last chemotherapy session, she still found herself struggling to keep up with her workload. She was exhausted and felt frustrated by her coworkers’ lack of understanding. Marybeth says she didn’t want to be known as “the woman with cancer” and she figured asking for more help would be held against her. She struggled on but her job performance suffered, eventually resulting in a poor performance review and job dissatisfaction.
“I don’t know if things would’ve been different for me if I’d been more willing to talk to my boss about how I was feeling and to ask for more adjustments to my work. I’d like to think so,” said Maryann. “I hope I never have to go through treatment again, but if I do, I know I will be more open to talking to my workplace about it.”
It may be difficult to talk about your diagnosis and expectations with your boss. However, it is almost always the right thing to do to protect yourself. Armed with an understanding of your potential needs and rights, you are in a better position to take control of your cancer and your career.
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Marcia Evans is a writer and communication manager with 20 years of experience in public affairs and advocacy. Her focus is on helping organizations create communication strategies that make meaningful connections with their followers. She writes in honor of her uncle, who lost his battle with small cell carcinoma in 2018.
In this three-part series, I’ve been exploring different aspects of returning (or continuing) to work after a cancer diagnosis. So far I’ve tackled issues from preparing to return to work and handling your workload, to dealing with problems such as fatigue and concentration. In the final part of this series, I’m turning my attention to finding a new job after cancer treatment has ended.
There are a number of reasons why you might be looking for a new job after cancer. Perhaps you crave a fresh start, somewhere where you’re not known as the co-worker with cancer. Or perhaps you need more work flexibility – such as the option to work part-time – but your current employer isn’t in a position to make the adjustments you need. Or maybe you want to change career, switching direction towards something more meaningful and fulfilling.
Whether you’re looking for a new job or considering a new career direction, this month’s article has plenty of practical advice to help you.
1. Get Clarity on Your Direction
A good place to start is by getting clear on your new goals, financial needs and current skills and abilities. Grab a pen and some paper and take some time thinking about your responses to the following questions.
- What are my core skills and strengths? Am I using them to their fullest in my current (or previous) job? Which skills and interests from my previous jobs will transfer over to a new position or field?
- What new insights or skills have I gained through cancer? Do I want to be able to use these in my job?
- Have my career goals changed? Do I want to work in a similar job but with more work-life balance? Or do I want to try something new?
- Do I have the required skills for a new career interest? Will I need to retrain? How will this impact me financially?
- Do I have the stamina to take on something new? Do I need to consider the impact of any long term side-effects from treatment on my ability to work?
2. Update Your Resume
The next step is to get your resume in order. If it’s been several years since you last applied for a job, you may need to take into account that resume writing has changed quite a bit in the past decade. For example, the chronologically based resume (listing job titles, companies and dates in chronological order), while still popular, is giving way to a more dynamic skills-based one. This is good news if you want to work around a gap in your employment history. For a skills-based resume, you will create a relevant summary of your skills, career accomplishments and career goals and position this directly below your name. You should aim to provide an example of an area of accomplishment related to each specific skill.
Pro Tip: When it comes to including employment dates, don’t include months in the dates, only years. This helps narrow the work gaps.
3. Develop Your Network
Make a list of everyone you know who is currently working in your industry or the industry you’d like to be in. Take a strategic approach by setting achievable goals for the number of people you want to connect with every week. Reach out to them and tell them about your plans to find new work or change career direction. Ask them to keep you updated of any new job openings and leads. Hiring managers are more willing to consider you for an interview after a personal recommendation.
Pro Tip: When it comes to building your professional network there’s no better tool than LinkedIn. LinkedIn multiplies your existing personal and professional networks by making the connections of your connections available to you at the touch of a digital finger.
4. Optimize Your LinkedIn Profile
Your LinkedIn profile is the cornerstone of your professional brand online. While you may already have a profile on the platform, is it optimized for a job search? LinkedIn profile optimization simply means that your LinkedIn profile is fully updated to maximize your visibility on the platform. Everything you do on LinkedIn begins with your profile. Yet many professionals still treat their LinkedIn profile as little more than a place to park their resume and promptly forget about it.
You won’t be effective at LinkedIn networking if your profile doesn’t entice people to get to know you. Here are some quick tips to optimize your profile (for a step-by-step guide with more detailed information, click here).
- Make your first visual impression count by displaying a high-quality professional photo.
- Adding a background image directly behind your photo will help brand your profile. Think of it as your professional billboard.
- Create a strong professional headline. This is a critical step because your professional headline is not just highly visible on LinkedIn, it’s also searchable by Google.
- Nurture your LinkedIn relationships through regular engagement. This is not about making large numbers of contacts; rather, it’s about making meaningful connections.
- Join industry relevant groups. Job openings are often posted by recruiters in industry groups. You will find groups by clicking on Interests > Groups from your profile or searching keywords to identify groups with interests similar to yours.
- Become an active and engaged user. When you log into LinkedIn, notice each time who shows up in your home feed. Most likely you will see the same few people. These individuals are getting more visibility because they are more active. If you make the commitment to become more active in your network, you will increase your visibility
- Be strategic about when you’re active on LinkedIn. As a general rule, LinkedIn users are most active right before and after work (7–8 am and 5– 6 pm), as well as during lunch time.
Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid to use social media to your advantage: if you know the hiring manager’s or recruiter’s name, add them on LinkedIn.
5. Mind Your Digital Footprint
Employers are increasingly carrying out social media checks on prospective employees. Anticipate this by googling yourself to see what turns up. Here is where a professional profile on LinkedIn can be enormously helpful to present the best impression. Because of the way Google’s search algorithm works, an optimized LinkedIn profile will frequently show up in the first few places of a Google search for your name.
While LinkedIn is an asset, other forms of social media may harm your search for a new job. Sharing personal information about your treatment through a blog, Instagram, Twitter or Facebook is publicly searchable by potential employers. Many of us turn to social media sites and blogs to keep our families and friends updated on our progress and to seek support during cancer treatment. But when your focus returns to work, you may not want your employer or prospective employer to know of your cancer history.
Pro Tip: Take some proactive steps to protect your privacy online. Set privacy settings on things like Facebook so that nothing can be seen by people who aren’t “friends” (including pages you are a fan of – an often forgotten detail). Delete what you can from your postings on Facebook and other media that talk about your cancer. Set up a Google Alert to monitor mentions for your name.
6. Handling the Job Interview
A job interview is stressful at the best of times, but when you’re anxious about handling the question of cancer, it’s doubly so. Sixty-one percent of cancer survivors looking for a job said they fear disclosing their cancer diagnosis will negatively affect their chances of getting hired.
Rehearsing what you plan on saying ahead of time greatly reduces any anxiety you may feel. The more prepared you are before the interview, the more relaxed and at ease you will appear during the interview. Draw up a list of potential questions and practice your answers. Accentuate the positive. For now, put aside your worries about how to explain the gap in your resume and spend some time focusing on why you are the right person for the specific job that you are applying for. List at least ten great qualities and skills you have and ask friends and family to help you brainstorm more. Try to find a willing friend or family member who will role-play the interview with you.
Remember you don’t have to disclose your cancer history either on your application or during an interview. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from asking job applicants about a disability (this includes cancer) before offering them the job. However, you may decide you want to be upfront about a work-related absence. If this is the case, you can deal with it by briefly explaining you had some time off work for a health (or family) related reason, but that’s behind you and you’re now looking forward to re-joining the workforce. Keep it simple, stick to one sentence or two and don’t be tempted to digress. Then switch the direction of the questioning back to your skills and qualifications for the job.
Pro Tip: Do your research before going into an interview. By showing off your knowledge of both the company and the industry, you are conveying to the interviewer that you are still up-to-date even if you have been absent from work for a period of time.
7. Considering a Career Change
Cancer changes your outlook on life. Alongside an increased awareness of the preciousness of time, you may also have decreased tolerance for spending time on meaningless tasks. Many cancer survivors, my own self included, have felt a calling for more meaningful work after their treatment has ended. I’d like to finish this back-to-work series by sharing the stories of three such people who have used their cancer experience as a way to help others and forged new careers in the process.
Jennifer Elliott was a pre-kindergarten to elementary school age music teacher before being diagnosed with bilateral synchronous breast cancer in 2014. Since her diagnosis, her focus has shifted to patient advocacy. “My advocacy began when I realized that my access to industry trained people, thanks to where I live and who my friends are, was impacting my care in a positive way,” said Jennifer. “That made me angry, because we should all have equal access to quality care. I’m now applying to graduate degree programs in public policy because, as I’m advocating for breast cancer survivors I’ve learned that all the things I’m advocating for are impacted or dictated by policy and if I want to have the broadest impact I need some policy skills and training.”
Terri Coutee was focused on a life-long dream of completing a Master’s program in teacher leadership when she received news of her second breast cancer diagnosis. “The diagnosis was the catalyst to evaluate my professional career,” explained Terri. “I had to focus on my treatment and major surgery over a period of seven months. This gave me time to re-evaluate, research, and refocus. I learned less than 25% of women and men were not being given their options for breast reconstruction after mastectomy. As a life-long educator, I realized I could educate those affected by breast cancer and learn from my experience. A blog about my successful breast reconstruction experience led to opening a non-profit Foundation to educate a global audience through social media, attending medical conferences, and making as many personal connections as I could to assist others through their own journey. The need is endless because we haven’t found a cure for breast cancer, yet. Until we do, I will continue to educate and provide resources for the very best medical care for others faced with mastectomy.”
At the age of 51, Chris Lewis wasn’t looking for a career change. “I was working for myself and was at the peak of my earning power,” he said. “Then a poor prognosis of incurable blood cancer and my life was turned upside down. I have since had many years of complex treatment meaning I could not return to employment of any description. As my survivorship moved from months to years I needed a purpose. My body was in bad shape but I still had a business mind.”
Unhappy at the poor resources and help for people living with cancer, Chris took to the Internet to voice his displeasure, leading to him running his own successful website Chris’s Cancer Community. “This led to me becoming a global expert speaker and writer”, said Chris. “I am self-taught in social media and an award winning writer. As a patient advocate I speak at many high profile conferences. Cancer has taken a lot from me, but has shown me a new way of life I would never have experienced. The big bonus is the incredible people I get to meet and talk to daily. It seems even at my age I have found a new career!”
A Stanford Medicine X e-Patient scholar, Marie Ennis O’Connor is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, writer, and consultant on global trends in patient engagement, digital health and participatory medicine. A board member of the Patient Empowerment Foundation, a network of people, foundations, organizations and medical institutions dedicated to empowering patients worldwide, Marie’s work is informed by her passion for embedding the patient voice at the heart of healthcare values. She writes about the experience of transitioning from breast cancer patient to advocate on her award-winning blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.