Be the Boss Over Cancer

I've been unemployed for a little over two years now. That said, I was diagnosed with Stage III cancer during my last job. I worked through it without telling anyone until I was rushed into emergency surgery. Two surgeries back to back, in fact. The doctor gave me six weeks leave for EACH surgery but I returned to work after only 2 days following the first surgery and then 4 days following the second surgery because I didn't want to lose my job. No one even knew I had cancer except my direct boss. Here's the kicker. Three weeks after healing from both surgeries and receiving a clean diagnosis from the doctor, my job was suddenly "redefined" into three new roles and I found myself unemployed with no severence, no advance notice and no justification. I had perfect attendance, no vacations, no PTO time taken other than the combined 6 days following two emergency surgeries over a period of 6 weeks and had worked over 70 hours a week for over a year. Understanding that leaving a job after a relatively short tenure can raise questions regarding "cause" (fired???), I chose to put the reason for my departure under the dates worked in an effort to be proactive in alleviating any misconceptions/concerns before they arise. (Two other companies closed due to the economy so this one employer isn't, unfortunately, the only short tenure I've had which is why I decided to include the reason for my departures). As pertains my last job, I wrote "Reason for leaving: Position downsized following winning battle against cancer. Subsequent relocation to ...) in an effort to communicate my perseverence and good health. Some people tell me they think it's a great idea to include the reasons for departure while others tell me to leave such discussions until the interview. The problem is that I'm not getting any interviews and without the opportunity to explain it looks like I was terminated for "cause" or am "flighty". I wasn't and I'm not. What are your thoughts?


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  • Rebecca Nellis

    Rebecca Nellis on May 6, 2010

    Cancer and Careers Staff Comment:

    Hi Katherine,

    Thank you so much for reaching out! I have sent your post on to two of our career coaches but I wanted to respond with a couple thoughts off the top of my head.

    One, generally it is good to wait to discuss your cancer treatment and recovery-if at all-until you are in the door of a company. Legally, you don't ever have to share it unless you will be requesting a reasonable accommodation. Obviously, practically it isn't always possible to avoid but I wouldn't recommend including it on your resume as quite frankly, it allows for prospective employers to discriminate.

    Two, in this economy it is way more common for people to find themselves with gaps in their resume for a myriad of reasons so sad as it is to say this helps you out as well.

    Third, there are different styles of resumes and maybe you need to rethink the one you are using. For sample templates of two kinds check out the Job Search section here: And for more detailed information on resume building and job search in general you can listen to archived presentations from two of our career coaches on here: and here:

    Please don't hesitate to be in touch with follow up questions and again keep an eye out for our coaches responses to your post as well.


    Rebecca Nellis

    Director of Programs

    Cancer and Careers

  • Rosalind Joffe

    Rosalind Joffe on May 7, 2010

    Career Coach Comment:

    Hi Katherine,

    I agree with all 3 of Rebecca's points. I think that writing about cancer in a resume could easily be misconstrued. Resume writers (and it is a profession) constantly push the point that the resume is written for the audience. You don't know your audience personally nor do they know you. But I think that if you're comfortable talking about it in the interview, it can be a selling point. Here, too, you might want to consider if you want to describe it as a healthy problem or an illness rather than cancer specific. Your point is to show your strengths and resilience and you might not want people to get distracted by the label.

    You want to be sure to frame your resume so that your employment "gaps" are not the focus but your strong skills are - show the value added you give and people will be less concerned with the time you haven't worked. A skilled resume writer can be very helpful and you might consider it.

    I hope that this helps.You sound like you have a positive attitude and that will shine through.

    Rosalind Joffe

  • Julie Jansen

    Julie Jansen on May 8, 2010

    Career Coach Comment:

    Dear Katherine,

    The most important thing for you to focus on is your incredibly successful and brave journey through your cancer diagnosis and treatment! This said, I would be cautious about relaying this experience to the world, especially on your resume. I believe that doing so puts up a huge red flag that potential employers can't help but focus on.

    The number one fear that cancer survivors have is being judged unfairly because they had cancer. The reason this is such a prevalent fear is because all too many people do make assumptions that aren't usually true. By advertising this on your resume, you are enabling a potential employer to make an unfair judgement. As you know, a resume is an exclusionary document and employers receive so many that they look for reasons not to interview someone.

    Explaining your reasons for leaving a company should be handled in an interview and only if asked. The good news is that there are many people who have gaps on their resume, not only for health reasons but because of the economy. Your focus should always be on how to articulate your strengths and what immediate value you can bring to a job and potential employer.

    Good luck!


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