Woman and doctor review mammogram showing breast cancer.
By Robin Ryan
This year, 330,080 cases of breast cancer are estimated to be diagnosed in the US according to the American Cancer Society. It’s just an empty statistic unless you are one of those women who happened to sit in the doctor’s exam room and hear the words, “you have breast cancer.”
Angela was a 47-year-old workaholic by her own admission. She lived in Silicon Valley and she thrived at her tech job. Seven years earlier she had joined in with two founders to be part of a cool startup and help build the company from the ground up. She’d work an enormous amount of hours to make it happen. Like all startups, the job was high pressure and full of stress.
“Workaholism can be very addictive”, Angela said. She was surrounded by other workaholics all committed to making the startup mission happen until her life was shattered into pieces the day her doctor told her she had breast cancer. BREAST CANCER. It wasn’t a statistic anymore. Now, she had breast cancer. In that earthshattering moment when she heard those words, she cried.
A fighter, Angela kept a positive attitude throughout the long grueling treatment of chemotherapy, radiation, and mastectomy. She was beating this disease.
Her company was small and at first, they continued to pay her full salary. As the months went on and she was still home, the salary got significantly reduced. A divorced Mom, Angela was the sole support of her two teenage kids and she need not only an income but also medical insurance. It was these circumstances that had her set up a meeting with her boss who was the CEO and go in to discuss returning to work.
“I was in a really vulnerable spot,” said Angela. “My hair was an inch long. I had no eyebrows. I’d lost weight and I was so pale. It was very obvious I was sick. I felt so much fatigue from the treatment. Yet after eight months off, I was meeting my boss to say I’m ready for work even though I had no idea if I could do that. Our office conference room was all glass. I sat there and felt like I was in a fishbowl with everyone was staring at me. It was so unsettling,” she said.
The CEO greeted her with a new executive she had not met before. He started by discussing his concern for her health. That followed with comments that a lot of changes had happened since she’d been gone and she quickly she realized that the company was not wanting her to come back. They indeed wanted to let her go. They gave her a package and she was walked out the door stunned that she had been fired.
“Robin I made out the door and down the hall then I broke into tears. I could not believe it. I had done so much and given so much to this company and they had fired me. I was devastated. How would I find a new job? Here I had just beaten cancer and I this was one last horrible blow,” Angela shared.
Angela said she was filled with so much self-doubt as she began to job hunt. Could she do a high tech job? She suffered from what cancer patients call “chemo brain” a slowness, fogginess, and forgetfulness that is a side effect from chemotherapy. It takes a long time to subside. She also felt such fatigue from the treatment regime and the work hours in tech are long. Yet she required medical insurance and the income. She had to job hunt.
The need to work is one thing – actually getting there is another when you’ve been seriously ill. The road back isn’t easy. I know how hard this is myself as I went through breast cancer and stopped working for over a year. So many people who have cancer need some guidance on how do you make the way back to working again. Be sure you have recovered enough that you can handle the part-time or full-time hours and work duties.
Angela did land a new job after a five-month job search. Someone in her network let her know of a position. She had several tough interviews before she got hired. Here is some advice to follow for anyone who goes through the challenge of returning to work after cancer or another serious illness.
Get your resume ready.
Focus on stressing your skills and how you used them on the job. Employers are most impressed by past initiative and the results you’ve achieved. This is what should be outlined and highlighted. Think back and review your performance appraisals and job descriptions to determine what have been your key accomplishments. Emphasize these.
This is the most effective way to land a job. Make a list of colleagues, former bosses, friends, relatives, neighbors, and everyone you know that could help you. Use LinkedIn to find connections. College alumni networks can be very useful so check them out. Set up meetings and send out emails. Don’t focus on your illness, just keep it work-related and professional. Always end an encounter by asking if the individual knows anyone else you should talk to so you can continue to expand your network.
Prep for the Interview Questions
You are likely worried about answering questions an employer may bring up related to an employment gap. Have your answer ready. Best to just say, “I took time off to deal with some health issues that have been completely resolved and I am now ready to return to work. You were just mentioning you need someone with excellent planning skills. At my last job, I planned numerous large events…..” Here you make the conversation focus on the skills and away from the time off or illness. Another concern for many people is their lack of or their very short hair as it’s a giveaway they went through cancer treatments. You may be worried the employer will bring this up in an interview. You are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act which prohibits employers from asking job applicants about a disability before offering them the job, even if the disability is visible. Just in case, I would still advise you to be prepared to discuss how you are now ready to work and use the answer mentioned above.