Eight Lessons on Bringing Survivorship to the Workplace

Monday, April 21, 2014
Valerie S.Valerie S, a 2008 SAMFund alum and Alumni Leadership Council member, provides her perspective on what her cancer experience brings to her professional career.

After recently giving notice at the company where I have worked for almost 10 years, I was disturbed to hear about a comment made in passing by another manager. Apparently,this colleague was surprised that I hadn’t had a more difficult time finding a new job because of my “medical issues.” This commentary, tinged with concern at best, and condescending and insulting at worst, gave me food for thought. How do we, as survivors, overcome the potential and sometimes very real challenges, setbacks, and negative connotations of our illnesses in our professional lives, and in particular, during the job search process?

Many survivors choose to not talk about their past illness or ongoing health issues due to the hiring fears this may bring up… What if they discriminate against me because I had cancer? What if they don’t choose me because they think I can’t hack it? Unfortunately, I did not have the luxury of avoiding my past illness for two reasons. First, due to my outspoken involvement in the survivor and bone marrow transplant community, a Google search of my name easily turns up hits related to my illness. Second, my motivation for getting into healthcare was largely because of my experience as a patient. So I had to be very strategic about how I presented and “used” my illness to, in effect, sell myself.

It was very easy to become overwhelmed and assume I would be passed over for someone else without a cancer-type history. But surprisingly, what I found is that many of the key things that appealed to my new employer stemmed directly from my experience as a patient. By no means do I claim to be an expert in career coaching nor do I believe these lessons or qualities to be at all unique to survivors. I can only speak from experience; in my case, these eight lessons helped formulate my value proposition as an employee, allowing me to turn my illness from a liability into a very powerful and useful tool in the job search arsenal.
  1. Decision-making. Dealing with illness helped me hone in on what’s important and not become paralyzed by decisions. To manage my health and make weighty decisions about my care, I learned to evaluate clinical information, talk to friends and family, and follow my gut instinct. Utilizing multiple resources to prioritize is transferable to any career.
  2. Empathy.  In the healthcare industry, I have empathy for our customers, the patients. I understand what keeps them up at night and the frustrations they encounter. Empathy via shared experience is incredibly powerful; it is something that can’t be taught. This empathy helps drive and motivate me in my career and was a vital selling point during interviews.
  3. Teamwork.  Over the years of learning to manage my health, teamwork was key; my healthcare team consisted of my doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and more. Just like in most teams, conflict occasionally arose. For example, my doctor and I would sometimes disagree on an aspect of my treatment plan. We would therefore have to come up with compromises to move forward. The ability to manage conflict while working toward a common goal is something that hiring managers are always looking for in candidates.
  4. Confidence.  In a related lesson of working with doctors, during the course of my patient experience, I became comfortable communicating with persons of authority. This was necessary for me to advocate for myself and my health. Even as a teenager, I was talking to the doctors and consulting on all medical decisions, which sometimes entailed questioning the doctor’s directive. Being able to address and speak up around experts is vital to progression in almost any career and survivors typically have this experience in spades.
  5. Being Procactive. Managing one’s health during and after catastrophic illness is no easy feat. Being proactive vs. reactive can literally mean the difference between life and death. The healthcare system as it stands requires proactive navigation to ensure the best possible care. When applied to one’s profession, being proactive can be a huge asset.
  6. Persistence and Patience. Living with chronic illness and navigating the waters of side effects after remission takes an enormous amount of perseverance and patience. So many times I thought I was moving forward and doing better only to slide back. But each time, I picked myself up and dusted myself off, knowing that I had to keep trying. These qualities are invaluable in the professional setting – having perseverance and patience means that the inevitable challenges and setbacks companies and employees face will be dealt with, managed, and then eventually overcome.
  7. Communication. Prior to and after my bone marrow transplant, I constantly bridged communication gaps between multiple specialists. I would also follow up to make sure everyone received all the relevant results. In dealing with side effects and medication interactions, managing communication within my healthcare team was critical. Finally, I had to communicate clearly my concerns, issues, and symptoms. I learned how to explain my status and any underlying assumptions carefully to my healthcare
  8. Motivation. Last but not least, as a survivor I have learned to not take things in life for granted. This powerful perspective spills over into all areas of life. I was able to leverage this with my new employer by explaining my internal drive and motivation to come to work and do the best job possible. I expressed that because I have traveled a difficult road, I can appreciate and be grateful for opportunities in life.
It is my strongly held belief that whatever I may lack in perfect health is more than made up for in the array of qualities I now bring to the table. Without even realizing it, the key tenets of what made me someone worth hiring were built up over the years of fighting for my health and then continuing to manage my health. These lessons, powerful and deeply embedded in my professional and personal psyche, came across to the hiring manager as real, valuable, and transferable… and led to those two magical words, “You’re hired.”
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