The passage of time sneaks up on you. In many ways it feels like yesterday that I was hustling for a second gig to increase my cash flow after several months of busing across Australia with a backpack (and a brief pitstop in New Zealand on my way home). I was determined not to accept another full-time position unless it was something I was really excited about. At that time, I was working on a project part-time, taking a graduate history course (and treating it more like a super interesting book club) and teaching a children’s theater class. What I wasn’t doing was making ends meet. So when I responded to an ad on Craigslist for a part-time, temporary gig, my initial thinking was I would be able to add another two days of paid work to cover my food and rent. Little did I know that answering that ad would completely change the course of my professional life.
Last Thursday marked my 15th anniversary at Cancer and Careers. During the past decade and a half, I have changed, the organization has changed…and we have changed each other. The conversation around work and cancer has been elevated to new places — from a roundtable at the National Cancer Institute to our own session at South by Southwest. Our offerings evolved from being information focused (a rich website and printed publications) to encompassing a wide range of innovative programs, like our Resume Review Service, Professional Development Micro-Grants, and conferences and workshops for our community of patients, survivors, healthcare providers and employers. We reach across the entire country, in fact I am five states away from visiting all 50, which is a goal I didn’t know I had until it was within reach. Even more important than the unexpected travel goals are how all of the places have left an imprint on me — from Birmingham to Bismarck and Anchorage to Albany. Every place I visit reminds me that any differences we have are outweighed by the things we share. Someone struggling to figure out whether to disclose a cancer diagnosis at work or during an interview in Nebraska isn’t that different from someone confronting the same challenges in California.
I have had the distinct privilege to work not just with the people who participate in our programs, but with an incredible staff (current and past), our cancer community partners and our remarkable funders and board members — many of whom have been supporting us since the beginning. They recognized early on that the work part of someone’s life is an essential component of the cancer conversation.
Watching the cancer landscape evolve over the past 15 years has been incredible — improvements in detection and treatment have paved the way for a much more robust dialogue around survivorship. From conversations about dating and fertility to finances and work, what constitutes a person’s whole life is a more central part of their cancer experience now. There is still work to be done. To make sure that companies become more knowledgeable and supportive of both their employees who are diagnosed, as well as the caregivers who have to manage both work and supporting a loved one. To make sure that the law is understood and utilized as a tool of support for people managing illness and work — and that it evolves as the landscape we live in does. To make sure that healthcare professionals, who are often the first point of contact, can provide the right guidance to their patients as they navigate issues around work and cancer.
The one constant over all these years, as technology and treatment and care have changed, is CAC’s desire (and mine within that) to support the individuals facing the challenges of balancing work and cancer with credible, relevant and meaningful programs and services.
It has been a huge privilege to help build Cancer and Careers into the thriving organization it is today. As we look toward our next strategic plan and the organization’s 20th anniversary, in 2021, I know the biggest impacts are yet to come.