I have been a proud CAC staff member for 12 years, helping to shape the organization into the national authority it is today. It is a long road to grow a great idea into a robust institution with meaningful programs and services, and still to this day nothing breaks my heart more than hearing “I wish I’d known about Cancer and Careers sooner.” We are always striving to get to people when they need us most, wherever they might be looking — from doctors offices and community partner organizations to events and the web, and on and on. When Maddy, one of our incredible CAC program staffers, shared a link to a question posed by "Recovering" about his/her concerns for privacy and disclosing skin cancer in the workplace to the syndicated advice columnist Ask Amy, I was at once thrilled to see this issue being raised in an arena where 200 outlets would be picking it up. My thrill quickly turned to disappointment as I saw this complex issue reduced to a simple recommendation to be honest but brief and then become an advocate for skin cancer checks. Anyone who has experienced a cancer diagnosis of any kind knows that nothing about it — from the moment the doctor tells you — is simple or straightforward. I completely understand that an advice column is not going to delve into the nuances of an issue this complex. But a quick Google search would have provided some very useful context and even resources for the person asking the question. As we assessed how to respond, Maddy started posting a comment from CAC on all the sites she could; but 200 outlets is a lot and we have other work to do. We also selected a few newspapers to which we sent a letter to the editor, in case we could use this opportunity to draw some real awareness to the issues. And, now, my final remarks on this are in the below open letter to Amy Dickinson. Please feel free to comment, share, tweet, FB, etc., and help us educate the public on the challenges people face navigating work and cancer.
Open Letter to Amy Dickinson
I am writing to you from Cancer and Careers, a 15-year-old national nonprofit organization dedicated to helping cancer patients and survivors navigate the issues related to work and cancer, in response to a recent Ask Amy post you published regarding a question from “Recovering” about his/her skin cancer scar.
In response to the advice that was given, and some of the comments that are subsequently swirling around the Internet, we have been doing our best to add to the discussion boards to let Recovering and other readers know that cancer survivors do not have to disclose to their employer or colleagues. Deciding whether to tell — and if so whom — is an intensely personal choice. There are many things these individuals should consider before sharing their diagnosis, such as what side effects might they experience, what their treatment plans are (if any), what their protections are under the law, the culture of their work environment, etc.
Unfortunately, many survivors/patients face discrimination in the workplace because of their cancer diagnosis. In fact, in 2015 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 922 cancer discrimination claims. And those were just the people who chose to pursue action via the EEOC. This is why it is critical for patients/survivors to think through disclosure before making the personal decision to share or not share. More research related to this topic can be found at www.cancerandcareers.org/newsfeed/research/posts/.
Our concern is that due to the nature of your forum, the advice given over-simplifies the complexities of skin cancer as well as the serious privacy and legal issues that cancer patients and survivors may face on the job.
Finally, please keep in mind that while for some a cancer diagnosis means becoming an outspoken advocate, that isn’t true for everyone. There is no right approach; it is just important for survivors to think about what makes them comfortable, how important their privacy is and what their worries are before they start sharing their story.
If you are interested in learning more about the unique challenges cancer patients and survivors face on the job, returning to work or while searching for employment, I would be happy to discuss.
Rebecca Nellis, MPP
Chief Mission Officer
Cancer and Careers