Be the Boss Over Cancer

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There are a number of reasons why you might be looking for a new job during or after your cancer treatment. Maybe your personal values and work-related goals changed because of your cancer diagnosis and you want to switch fields to do something more meaningful or interesting to you. Perhaps you took too long of a leave of absence for treatment and your employer wasn't obligated to hold your job anymore. Or maybe your position was eliminated due to the poor economy. Whatever the cause, ask yourself the following questions before seeking a new position or changing fields:

  • Which skills and interests from my previous jobs will transfer over to a new position or field?
  • Will I need additional education or training? Can I afford to go to school to gain those new skills, especially if it prevents me from earning a paycheck?
  • Are companies hiring people in my position or in my new chosen field?
  • Would I take a lower-level position, if need be?
  • Do I have the stamina to handle a potentially stressful career change right now, after dealing with the physical and emotional effects of cancer?

If you're still interested in making a move, discuss your situation with a career counselor, or seek advice from former colleagues who are familiar with your professional strengths and weaknesses. Your friends and relatives may not feel comfortable criticizing your plans, so impartial advice is best.

Treat your job search like an actual job. Set realistic daily or weekly goals for yourself (sending out a certain number of resumes or taking an online course to learn new, marketable skills). Research what companies are hiring in your chosen field and try to make contacts there. Follow up on all leads, and always sound professional over the phone and in writing.

Many companies do online searches to find out information about prospective employees. Having a LinkedIn account or website showcasing your professional experience can be helpful, but putting too much personal information online can be harmful. If you blog, Tweet or update your Facebook status about a recent chemo treatment, for example, your cancer diagnosis is now public information, even if you'd hoped to keep your health information private during the job-search process.

More than 10 million people in the U.S. are cancer survivors, and many are in the prime of their working years when the cancer is diagnosed. Like you, many are eager to get back to the work force, looking forward not only to a steady income again but also to the psychological benefits of work and of feeling more "normal" again. Even so, most people say they are anxious about how their work life will play out. In a survey of 29 cancer survivors, researchers found that:

  • One-third found it difficult to cope and concentrate initially and worried about their productivity once they got back to work.
  • The more stressful the job, the more difficult the re-entry.
  • The larger the company, in general, the easier the transition because accommodations were often more plentiful.

You can ease the anxiety. Here, useful tips for a smooth re-entry, offered by a career coach, a two-time breast cancer survivor, an employment law professor and an education expert from a cancer organization.

Tip #1: Tailor your resume format to your needs.

Before you even apply for a new job, get your resume in order so it will be ready to go the minute a potential employer contacts you. First, figure out which type of resume will make you look best on paper.

  • If your work gap is less than a year, a traditional chronological resume could work, especially if you eliminate the months and list only the years of your work history. --Career Coach Wendy Enelow, Co-author, "Expert Resumes for People Returning to Work," JIST Publishing, 2007
  • If your gap in employment due to your cancer treatment is greater than a year, write a "functional" resume--one that is skills-based, not chronologically-based.

For example: if your background has been in sales, customer service and public relations, list those as career skills up at the top . Under each of those headings, include three to six bullet points that will summarize your core skills or highlight your achievements. At the bottom, you can briefly list the companies you worked for, titles and dates. Don't include months in the dates, only years. That helps narrow gaps, and is still honest.

Functional resumes work because they impress potential employers with your skills first, and keep the focus on that as much as possible without being dishonest.

Another option: If your gaps in work have stretched to multiple years, list your experience and skills and present them not in a list of dates but rather like this: "6 years of customer service work," "2 years of managerial work in customer service," and so on.

In today's job market, with frequent downsizing and high unemployment levels, many people have employment gaps on their resumes. Employers may not even wonder whether illness caused your absence from the job market.

When composing a resume, be sure to include:

  • An objective. Employers appreciate it when you explain how your skills fit the company's needs.
  • Key words. Many hiring professionals use resume-screening software to find suitable candidates. People whose resumes don't include industry buzz words to describe their work experience probably won't be considered for interviews.
  • A summary or profile. Beneath your name and contact information, compose a brief paragraph that sums up what you have to offer, including your years of experience, important skills and most notable accomplishments. Many hiring professionals decide whether your resume is worth keeping by scanning this paragraph.

For sample resumes visit the New Job Search Tools blog.

Tip #2: Use your Network

Networking is a powerful tool that can help you land the job you want. Most people find work by following up on leads suggested by people they know, not by answering Help Wanted ads. But it can seem awkward or intimidating to ask friends, acquaintances or former colleagues if they can help with a job search. If you're hesitant, use the following suggestions to improve your networking skills:

  • Shun shyness. Networking requires calling or e-mailing people you haven't spoken with in a while or those you may not know well. Fortunately, many people are eager to help, if your request is specific and reasonable. Stay upbeat and focused, and keep phone calls short.
  • Use all of your connections. Think beyond your usual circle. Contact someone through your college alumni association who works in your industry. Join a professional organization in your area to meet people in your field or look up your former bosses on LinkedIn. Mention your job search when you chat with neighbors, acquaintances at church or synagogue, even your doctor or dentist.
  • Offer help in return. Reciprocity is key when networking. People are more willing to aid your job search if you can provide them with tips, resources or introductions to other people in your industry.

Tip #3: Rehearse your job interview ahead of time.

You're eager to meet with the human resources manager who called you for an interview, but worried that the conversation will touch upon topics that you're not so eager to address. Read on to find out what you’re obligated to disclose during your interview and what questions are off-limits for employers:

During the Interview

During an interview for a new job, ticklish questions may come up if you have noticeable employment gaps. You can reduce the anxiety in a number of ways:

  • Decide in advance what you will say. If the interviewer asks about the gaps, for instance, you can say, ''I was dealing with health issues." Then be sure to emphasize that the issues are resolved and that you're ready and eager to get back to work.
  • If you know anyone in management at another company, tell them your ideas about how you will respond to ticklish interview questions and ask for feedback.
  • Ask a family member or friend to "role-play" an interview so you can get used to answering tough questions. --Breast Cancer Survivor Mary Carpenter, San Diego, Ca.

If you look different because of cancer, you may be worried that your physical appearance will be brought up during your interview. But the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from asking job applicants about a disability before offering them the job, even if the disability is visible. It's illegal, then, for someone to ask you if you're undergoing chemotherapy because you're bald. However, if you walk with a cane, they can ask about your ability to perform the job you seek – for example, if you can carry heavy boxes or stand on your feet all day. (They can't ask why you use the cane, though.)

Although it's illegal for employers to ask about your health, it's wise to decide ahead of time what to say, just in case. Be brief, speak in general terms and talk more about the future than the past. For example, you can say, “I took time off from work for a health situation, but that's behind me now. A minute ago, you said you were looking for someone who's organized. Well, I have terrific organizational skills...”

Once You Are Offered the Job

You are not obligated to disclose any details about your cancer to potential employers during the interview process. Once you're offered a job, however, they can ask you medical questions, as long as other people who are offered the same job are asked those questions, too. And if your answers reveal a medical disability, the employer is only able to rescind the job offer if you're unable to perform the job duties or if you're a risk to yourself or others.

Employers can require you to take a medical exam once they offer you a position but again only if all similarly situated employees have to take one as well. However, they can't withdraw a job offer if a test reveals that you have a specific health condition; that's only permissible if the exam shows that you won't be able to perform the job you've been hired to do. Such applicants must be given the opportunity to show that they can perform the job before the offer can be withdrawn.

Tip #4: Know about employment laws that are relevant to your situation.

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to employers with 15 or more workers. It prohibits discrimination against someone with a disability or a history of a disability, and cancer is on that list. During a job interview, for instance, a potential employer bound by the ADA cannot ask you to take a medical exam as a condition of being offered the job and cannot ask you about your disability history. (After an offer, a medical exam can be requested, but only if every employee is required to have one.) The ADA also requires covered employers to make reasonable accommodations for your medical condition.

The key to obtaining those accommodations, however, is this: you have to communicate specifically what you need. Your boss doesn't have an obligation to provide any accommodation if he or she isn't aware of it and hasn't been asked to provide it.

More information on how the ADA helps cancer survivors get back to work can be found at the government website,

Besides the ADA, another federal law, called the Rehabilitation Act, provides protection for some other workers with a disability. For details, see

Numerous state laws also prohibit disability-based employment discrimination; some specifically spell out cancer as the disability.

Whenever you ask to be accommodated under the ADA or other laws, keep the focus on your purpose: to make a successful re-entry into the workforce and to be as productive as possible. When you ask for the accommodation under ADA, such as flex-time, it's a good idea to tell your new boss how this will make you more productive. Or, if you know you will be less productive for a time, due to treatment or side effects, be sure to spell out how you will make it up and when you expect to be back up to par. --Pauline Kim, employment law expert, John S. Lehmann research professor, Washington University School of Law, St. Louis, Mo.

Tip# 5: Check in with your boss regularly.

If your new boss knows about your medical history, you can reassure him or her that your productivity will increase as time goes on. Suggest that you would like to check in regularly to update your boss on your increasing energy, your decreasing need for treatments, and other important pieces of information.

You might check in biweekly or monthly, whichever seems to suit the situation, and review the work plan. You can update your boss about your ability to work more hours, for instance, if began the job as a part-timer.

By touching base often, you will feel more in control and empowered. Your boss will feel like you are an effective employee who is interested in becoming more and more productive. --Danielle Leach, Director of Education, Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, Washington, DC.