Young man smiling in job interview

The modern job market is daunting a prospect enough before we even consider throwing cancer into the equation. You’ve been put through hell — mentally and physically — in coping with your diagnosis and battling through treatment. Now, to cap it all off you face the unenviable task of interviewing for positions after long absences from the workforce. Unfortunately, this scenario is an all-too-common one and we sympathize greatly if you’re facing up to the challenge yourself.

In this article, we touch on many important pieces of advice as you tackle the interview process all over again. Knowing your legal rights with respect to your health and health history is one vital part of navigating this process. This was the topic of our earlier article in this series on cancer and work. We also offer practical tips that might help you, from broaching the subject of gaps on your resume to seeking medical leave to attend appointments and more.

A Word From The Experts

For this article, we reached out to a handful of thought leaders and bloggers in the careers advice field to get their thoughts on serious health issues and careers. We also gathered some relevant material on this topic from leading careers websites. What follows is a specially curated set of responses and thoughts on the matter:

Employers are obligated to treat you the same as other candidates with whom you are equally qualified and equally capable. Discrimination based on past health issues (or ongoing health issues that don’t affect your ability to perform the job) is unlawful.

“In cases like this, I suggest doing what feels right for you. If you would feel better discussing your cancer diagnosis with employers (before or after a job offer) then you should feel entirely comfortable to do so. However, never feel forced or obligated to disclose something that you aren’t legally required to disclose.”

“In situations where your health has necessitated long periods of time outside of the workforce you may find that openness about your health history actually helps to allay some of your prospective employer’s concerns regarding your suitability for the job in question.”

– Leslie Jones of Skillshare International

Lewis Lustman of HireRight advises that the best approach is often to keep things simple. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects you from any obligation to share information with prospective employers that you aren’t comfortable discussing. He also suggests that the best approach in these situations is often to simply tell your interviewer that you have been dealing with an illness. A positive slant can be placed on your absence from the workforce. For instance, you may point out that you are now healthy and eager to get back to work and that in your time away you were able to keep up to date with best practices and emerging industry developments.

Marie Ennis-O’Connor of also underlines the importance of finding positivity in your mindset during this difficult process. She recommends crafting your resume around the so-called skills-based model. In addition, Marie suggests having a well-rehearsed (but natural sounding!) response lined up in your head should the topic of your work history gaps arise. It’s important to say something that you feel comfortable with, whether it touches on your cancer history or not.

John Rossheim of conducted a very insightful interview with the CEO of recruitment firm Vitality. In it, he suggests that simplicity is the best way forward. One canned line that may work well is to say “I experienced a medical issue which is now resolved, and now I’m ready to get back to work.” This ticks many boxes: it is straightforward, honest, assertive and culminates in a statement of strong determination to work.

In the same interview, the expert recruiter makes a rather pragmatic point regarding the behavior of recruiters. Prospective employers sometimes do weigh up the potential consequences of hiring someone who has suffered from a serious health issue, even when it is illegal and unethical. For this reason, a good approach is often one which is honest without betraying unnecessary extra detail. Remember, you are not obligated to disclose your cancer history to anyone.

Know Your Rights

Having explored the dilemma of what to say and what not to say in interviews, it is worth emphasizing again your rights as a prospective employee. Most developed nations, including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, have enshrined in law your right to only disclose details of your health history that you wish to discuss.

Prospective employers can generally only raise a disability or health issue if it is visible and could reasonably be expected to interfere with your ability to carry out the duties associated with the job to which you are applying.

Writing Your Resume & Interviewing For Positions

  • Consider writing a skills-based resume. This means discarding the traditional chronological format and opting to showcase your skills instead. Choose skills carefully to align with the position to which you are applying and highlight them in bullet points.
  • Keep your work history section short and to the point. Instead of using dates, consider instead stating the number of years of experience you had in that particular role.
  • Even though turbulent health issues can force us into patterns of negative thinking, it’s important not to sell yourself short. Ask friends and family if necessary to help you in fully realizing and describing your talents.

You Landed The Job! What Now?

Congratulations! If all goes to plan then you’ll be embarking on what could be a long and successful chapter of your career. However, should things get complicated, never allow your employer to bully you for not disclosing your cancer history and treatment prior to being hired. You are not legally obliged to do so.

Furthermore, now that you’re at work you are protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act among other laws. This means you are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in any 12 month period if your employer has 50 or more staff and you have worked at least 25 hours per week for the last year.

Having covered all of this there isn’t much left to say except good luck in your job hunt and your future career! Stay tuned for more installments in our cancer and work series.