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Global Network

Best Practice Profile:
Empowering and Educating Employees with Cancer

Rebecca NellisIn 2001, the Board of Directors of Cosmetic Executive Women (CEW) – a nonprofit professional organization with over 5,000 executives in the beauty, cosmetics, fragrance and related industries – realized that five out of its 40 board members had been diagnosed with cancer. Some told their colleagues at work. Others did not. But all continued to work during or following treatment and all confronted similar dilemmas:

How do I tell my boss? What will my coworkers think? How do I balance work and treatment? What can I expect from my employer? What are my legal rights? What do other people do?

To help other cancer patients and survivors confront those questions, the CEW Foundation established Cancer and Careers (www.cancerandcareers.org), a program whose mission is to eliminate fear and uncertainty for working people with cancer.

“The truth is, work doesn't stop once you've been diagnosed with cancer,” says Rebecca Nellis, Vice President of Programs and Strategy for Cancer and Careers. “Over 80% of cancer survivors return to work after treatment. And once diagnosed, work becomes even more important.”

Cancer and Careers is the only nonprofit organization in the U.S. solely dedicated to serving the growing numbers of people working during and after cancer treatment. In the past 12 years, its services have grown from a very “robust” website to national community events, an annual conference, local support groups, webinars and teleconferences, an accredited educational program, an online community, a publication library in English and Spanish, and in-service training.

The organization serves patients and survivors nationwide; in 2012, more than 250,000 individuals accessed its online information and resources online, and more than 2300 people attended in-person and online events. Cancer and Career’s services are also used by 42 of the top 50 cancer centers in the U.S.

One of the most important messages that Nellis hopes Cancer and Careers can get across is that the experience of cancer is a “fluid” one. “People have a timeline in their head – start treatment, finish treatment, and then it’s all over – but cancer is an ongoing process and needs can change throughout,” she says.

Though the organization was founded initially to benefit women, Nellis says it soon became apparent that this didn’t make sense. Today, the programs and services of Cancer and Careers address all types of cancer, and all types of workplace issues, from deciding whether and how to tell your co-workers to conducting a new job search should you wish to make a change (many cancer survivors do, using their experience as an impetus to find something more meaningful to them).

Wherever you are on your cancer journey, here are Cancer and Career’s top 5 tips for balancing work and treatment:

  1. Before sharing your diagnosis, study your options.
    • Before you do or say anything at work, learn about the laws that may protect you, know your company’s policies (e.g., flex time, telecommuting, leave banks, etc.) and speak to your healthcare team about what your job requires and how treatment might affect your work abilities.
  2. Be mindful of what you say online.
    • You may think that you are safe posting on your social networks about your cancer history, but with privacy settings changing every day you may not be as protected as you think.
    • Whatever you do and say online becomes part of your online brand – so be aware that employers may be able to access the things you post and consider the short and long-term effects of what you say and do.
  3. When returning to work, ease back into the routine.
    • Make sure you take care of yourself physically and mentally.
    • Remind yourself of past accomplishments, these will help you to feel more confident as you get back into the swing of things.
    • Forget multi-tasking: keep a notebook, prioritize, and do one thing at a time.
  4. People want to be supportive, but don’t know how.
    • Your boss, co-workers, and human resources team won’t know how to address your cancer history without your input. Be clear with them about any limitations (or lack thereof) so you can address them and move forward.
  5. Be prepared to “swivel” the conversation back to work-related things so that the focus isn’t always on your cancer.
    • It’s up to you what you want to discuss at work. Take a cancer-related comment (e.g., “My dad had cancer too”) and swivel it back to work (e.g., “Thanks for sharing that. Also, do you think now is a good idea to go over those meeting minutes?”). This allows you to steer the conversation back to areas where you feel more comfortable.

Nellis, who has been with Cancer and Careers for nine years, is proud of the work the organization has done since its founding. “But, it’s still a pain in my heart when I hear people say, ‘I wish I had known about this when I was going through it,’” she says. “I hope as we get our message across, I’ll hear that less and less often.”


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