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Cancer Can Kill ... Your Career?

"Career opportunities are the ones that never knock. Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock. Career opportunities, the ones that never knock"

- The Clash, "Career Opportunities"

Extreme headline? Perhaps, but recently a Yahoo news article has been making the rounds through the cancer community stating such. How can that be, you might ask. Could a company be so callous as to fire an employee when said employee is in the fight of their life?

Yup. They can and they have.

Surely that can't be legal, you might wonder. Oh yes, by following a few hard and fast rules regarding disability benefits, it is legal. So what can you do to save your life and your job?

Tough question - and I don't know if there is just one right answer, but I'll give you some thoughts based upon my own experiences.

Eighteen months ago I was given a ticket to ride the cancer coaster for the second time. Boarding was not optional. So I strapped myself in and braced myself for the ride. This time was different though. I had an even more amazing support system than I had the first time because now I was not only backed once again by my wonderful family and dear friends but also had an incredible network of fellow survivors and warriors that buoyed my strength on the days when I really wanted to throw in the towel. And then there was my work family.

They emailed, checked in, sent gifts, and even visited. By assuring me that my job was safe truly took a load off my mind. They gave me space to take my time and come back when I felt strong enough. Their understanding allowed me to return to the office on a reduced schedule until I had the stamina to go back to my regular schedule. Just knowing that I would have a place to go, each day, where I could feel like myself and not dwell on my cancer was an emotional springboard into wellness and survivorship. Honestly, I like what I do. I like the people I interact with each day. I've made friends there. Good friends. I'm lucky. But that's not what I experienced first time around back in 2007. When I was diagnosed (as chronicled in my book, Does This Outfit Make Me Look Bald?) I was working in a very volatile company going through a major transition. Many jobs were going away but not in my department, my department was being redeployed to other areas. They were safe, but my diagnosis marked me as disposable. I was the easy one to get rid of...out of sight, out of mind, right?

I was highly insulted when I was let go, after working there for five years, for two reasons.

The first was the fact that my human resources department wasn't so human after all. They lied openly and obviously on the phone telling me that my department was dissolved and all but two people had been let go. I told them I could make one phone call and find out if that is true...did they really want to stand by that statement?

The second was that they gave me the same exact compensation package that they gave every one else they laid off. Really? Of the 800 people that were let go 799 could go on an interview the very next day. I couldn't. They were putting me in a situation where I would have to disclose my personal medical information to potential employers.

Word of warning...DON'T piss off the bald chick!

I was crushed because, while I didn't like my position or the company I was employed by, I knew I needed my job. Not just for my paycheck but for my sanity. I needed the comfort of knowing I had some place to go each day. I knew cancer was going to change me forever. I didn't know how though - and I was afraid that Jenn 2.0 was going to be branded with a big red "C" that was going to mark her as unemployable. It took me a while but eventually I felt confident enough in my health and hair length to begin interviewing again. I eventually got a job, and my cancer diagnosis was becoming more of a footnote rather than a definition, and it was at that point that I realized that life begins when you step out of your comfort zone.

As I anticipated, I changed - dramatically and for the better.

To the HR managers please remember, cancer patients need your patience. It's tough out there. Think first and foremost about how YOU would want to be treated. Present the employee with options. Be kind. Ask about their needs and their family life - you might just learn something about them you were previously unaware of. If you are unable to hold their existing job then offer them an opportunity interview with other divisions within the company once they return. Understand that their skills are still viable. If retaining them is beyond your control then give them the tools and support to start fresh when they are ready. Offer recommendations, contacts, and job leads. Be human (it's in your title after all) and whatever you do don't lie - cancer treatment may diminish our hair but it does not diminish our intelligence.

To the patients, your health is your priority, don't ever forget that. Listen to your doctor's advice. If you have short term or long term disability benefits use them - you've paid into the plan for exactly these circumstances. Take each day as it comes, don't get overwhelmed by the 'what-ifs.' Keep your skills viable and up to date. Devote your leave time to learning something new or indulging in a long forgotten hobby. You'll have time on your hands and unfortunately many sleepless nights (it's a cancer thing) so spend some of that time wisely. Keep in constant touch with your contacts via email, lunch dates, and phone calls. Think outside the box. Revamp your resume. Highlight your strengths. Explore new opportunities. Attend job fairs. Remind yourself frequently how fantastic you are and don't let anyone dim your light. Surviving cancer can be quite empowering and at some point, after active treatment ends, you will feel unstoppable.

On a side note something really interesting happened to the fashionista recently and it truly made me pause. As I came into work one morning I placed my coffee on my desk, hung up my coat, and was logging onto my computer a woman came up to me and said it's been such a long time and it was nice to see me again...I was baffled. She looked familiar but I couldn't place her. I said hello and the confusion on my face must have been obvious. She graciously reminded me that we had once worked together about seven years ago. Before I was sick. Before every little thing in my life changed. Back then, I didn't know it yet but I was lost. I was just going thru the motions of the day to day minutia of an over-scheduled, stressed-out working mom. I find it funny that she even recognized me because I don't even recognize myself from the person I was then; it completely caught me off guard that anyone else would. I'm a totally different person now...and I'm so much more awesome!

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