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Employment Advice: If you’re a hero, why are you hiding it?

PhillieG's picture
Posts: 4912
Joined: May 2005

My sister gave me an article from a newspaper about looking for work after surviving cancer. I thought it was worth posting here for other heroes to read.

by Eli Amdur

Over the last few weeks I spoke with five interesting people who had five things in common. Here are the first four. They are all cancer survivors, they are all returning to the workplace after a long battle, they are all having a monumentally hard time getting a job, and they are all over 55.

That I speak with people like these is not new, although five in such a short time is quite a coincidence. And none of the above things is either rare or a sole reason to write a column.

However, the fifth thing they have in common is why today’s column came to be. They are all doing everything they can to hide these facts, especially the first one: the cancer. Now jump to thing five, the difficulty in finding a job. That’s why I got their calls and emails. I gave them all the same advice. Tell people about it. Don’t hide it. Get it out front and out of the way. This seemed counterintuitive to them – it may to you as well – and when I first laid it out, it made them uncomfortable. By the time we finished our conversations, though, they all agreed.

And I’ll bet many people reading this disagree initially, too. In fact, the advice these five people had gotten from everyone to whom they had previously spoken was opposite to mine – don’t mention it, don’t bring it up, don’t discuss it, employers are not allowed to ask about that, if employers know they’ll never hire you, it’s none of their business, your previous employer is not allowed to mention it. And so on, ad infinitum.

Well then, if that’s the right advice, why are these people unable to find work? If they’ve hidden these facts, shouldn’t that – based on those others’ advice – lead to job opportunities?

No, because it’s bad advice. If you follow that line of strategic (?) thinking, and it goes month after month – in two cases, over a year – doesn’t that indicate it might be faulty? This advice came from people who meant well; they just don’t know the realities of the job market.

In each case, we got around to how these five answered the “what-have-you-been-doing-since-your-last-job?” and “why-did-you-leave-your-last-job?” questions. OK, so how did they answer those questions? With every half-baked cockamamie answer you can think of, none of which holds water. Other than the truth, any answer is weak and suspect. If you think otherwise, go ahead; try any other answer and get back to me if you come up with one that sounds convincing – and that sounds like one that will move you to the second round of interviews.

Now, one might think this is asking for trouble, that – as they all said – employers would not hire them due to fear they would get sick again and … you know the rest.

Underneath it all, what’s wrong with all this is that, in the eyes of many – me included – cancer survivors are heroes, and nothing less. They know all about the important things in life, like vision, determination, patience, goals, positive thinking, decision-making, responsibility, team work, bravery, and fortitude. Are these not the characteristics an employer looks for?

So why hide this? Is it because you feel you’ll get fewer calls or second interviews? Indeed you will, but that’s OK. This deception game is the same faulty thinking that goes into the hide-my-age-by-leaving-stuff-off-my-resume fallacy. C’mon, some employers might be unfair to older workers or cancer survivors or anyone else, but they’re not stupid. Whatever you try to hide will come out sooner or later. If you do the deceptive dance, they’ll just find out later (not sooner), and then you’ll just have wasted an awful lot of your time, not to mention keeping your hopes up artificially.

So my suggestion is this. Start your cover letters off with a bold statement: “After spending the last 10 months battling cancer, I have won that battle and am now re-entering the workplace.” Continue your letter as you would normally (see my article, “The Great All American Cover Letter Challenge,” September 12, 2010), and send it out.

You know what’s going to happen? For sure, you will get fewer responses. But the ones you get are going to be real – very real. Don’t you think there are people who admire what you’ve done? Don’t you think a large number of hiring managers have either had the same experience you did or had a family member who did? Don’t you think there are companies who are such avid supporters of cancer research that they sponsor 5K runs, Relay for Life, and other events in which we now all participate? The answers are yes, yes, and yes.

And don’t you think that, to these companies and managers, you’re a hero? Yes again. Well then, let them know!

The ones who will disqualify you because of what you’ve been through are jerks, and if by any slim chance you get this by them initially, what do you think will happen once this comes out? Jerks are always jerks; don’t forget that.

I’ll take fewer calls any day of the week if they’re sincere and real, wouldn’t you? And if you can create the conditions under which that happens, why wouldn’t you?

Do not lose sight of one thing. You’re a hero. And if you’re a hero, why are you hiding it?

soccerfreaks's picture
Posts: 2800
Joined: Sep 2006

A well-written piece, Phil. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. I would only say that it is not as easy as this guy makes it out to be, for reasons he does not address. For some (let's say you are/were in the IT profession) an extended absence may make you feel as though you have lost your edge, that you are behind the curve knowledge-wise. For others, the treatments for cancer may preclude being able to DO the job you once did (heavy lifting comes to mind immediately, for some).

Still, I have been among those who would say that most employers will avoid you like the plague if you have had, well, modern times' plague, cancer, and he has convinced me that we should go with our BEST instincts, to be open and honest, and that things will work out for the best.

Take care, my friend,


Sundanceh's picture
Posts: 4408
Joined: Jun 2009

...I suppose up to about a year, you could say you were just "looking for work." That might fly as there are many unemployed.

But I can say that if we were to stretch this into a couple of years or more, it would be harder and harder to conceal the truth.

With all the competition and young folks coming on board, it makes it harder and harder to justify experience with someone who is younger and healthy and not dragging down the premium benefits that you would be doing.

Also, the uncertainty of never knowing when you might get sick again, or even die, and leave the company in a lurch, is an automatic red flag, hero or not. "We love you, guy, but get out!"

I've left 4x times now - lost my position that I worked hard for, but still have a position within the company... been there faithfully for 21 years. But, I bet they are not thinking "hero." They are thinking "Liability" and how can we get this guy out of here?

Good article and an interesting perspective, Phil. Good to see you, as always.


Nana b's picture
Nana b
Posts: 3045
Joined: May 2009

I battling with this now! I was fired, for all the wrong reasons. Makes it tougher.

Great article!

Marcia527's picture
Posts: 2748
Joined: Jul 2006

We don't tell the same reason we don't mention anything that might be a negative. You are talking to someone you don't know and can't tell what would decide against you. So you smile and smile again. I've seen some real bozos get hired even in my limited experience. You don't mention anything that might be a weak link.

scouty's picture
Posts: 1976
Joined: Apr 2004

I needed that!

You know that after my success fighting the ******* cells I have been "kicked off" disability and now need to find a job given the financial mess the US has been in the last 10 years. I'm 56 and been out of the helter skelter technical world 5 years now and will be interested to see how I react to that "run around with your hair on fire world again".

While working with a professional resume dude, we were talking about how I was going to word my 5 year absence from work while I dealt with my "terminal condition". My dad had gotten sick and died during that time so I just referred to it as "family health issues". Then he asked me something I will never forget....

Would you like to work for someone/a company that didn't want to know or care about your cancer?

My most recent resume now has it there with some other things that some may say are too "friendly" but screw em. That is me and after the first of the year I will see how I do with it floating out there.

Thanks again Phil! This is the kind of stuff I was hoping this long term board would bring.

Happy Turkey Day everyone,
Lisa P.

Nana b's picture
Nana b
Posts: 3045
Joined: May 2009

Good luck Scouty!!

If you need help with resume, just let me know. Maybe I can work free HR Service on this bird!! Lol

Posts: 1
Joined: Mar 2011


I am new to the CNS discussion boards. Just curious and wanted to ask a few questions. 1) what type of cancer did you have and 2) why were you "kicked off" disability.

I have Leukemia (ALL) and have been on disability for 6 months. There is no way I can work right now. Just curious why you were no longer receiving disability - what their reason was.

Thanks in advance for your time!

New Flower
Posts: 4299
Joined: Aug 2009

Mine was stage III breast cancer. I was kicked off from privet long term disability because Privet insurance did not want to pay. I refuse to apply for Sosial Security Disability , which usually subtracted from long-term disability benefit. They took my medical records, found inconsistency in doctor,s notes and ask their consultant to write evaluation on my case. Make sure that your doc records all your complains, try not to be a hero at your doc visits, clearly explain your symptoms and difficulties. Please do not wear make up when you see your oncologist, many patients do not look sick. Insurance company can do whatever they want, do not expect compassion from them

Good luck with your treatment. Your health is the most important thing in the world right now.
New Flower
I did appeal my case and won, was reinstated.

scouty's picture
Posts: 1976
Joined: Apr 2004

I'm sorry I just noticed your question. I was dxed with stage IV rectal cancer in 2004 with a dismal prognosis. Surgery wasn't an option so all I had was chemo. I worked until I felt like it wasn't fair to my team for me to continue to. Being stage IV I was an automatic qualifier for Social Security and for my employers short and long term disabilities. I went out on long term disability (essentially retiring) in 2005. I did chemo for 8 months but decided to try all sorts of other things late 2004 and so far it has worked for me.

I've been very fortunate fighting the beast and am now celebrating 6 1/2 years NED (no evidence of disease). My employer decided that after I hit my 5 year mark that I was too healhty to be on their disability so they kicked me off of it. I have worked very hard on healing and getting my health back and am even enjoying running again @ 56! If I thought I was truly disabled I would have fought it but honestly I feel great so I couldn't. Nice problem to have.

Lisa P.

New Flower
Posts: 4299
Joined: Aug 2009

Hi Lisa ,
I have been wondering about your success. have you find a dream job and compassionate employer? Please share your experience with us.
You also have mentioned "all sorts of other things" in addition to Chemo and I am very curious about them too.
Wishing you the best of luck,
New Flower

PhillieG's picture
Posts: 4912
Joined: May 2005

I think it would be hard to conceal why someone was not working for a long time. And I do think that in a perfect world, this could really be an asset. We all know we don't live there! I have been open about my cancer and would/will find it difficult to announce on a resume but I do feel strongly that getting through this speaks so much about all of our strengths and character. Cancer is certainly not for sissies. Would most companies want people like us there? Take away the health liability and I'd say "YES" but look at it from the good old bottom line BS and sadly I think it's more of a "NO". Where I've been working has been extremely supportive of my cancer. They even moved me from being a temp to being on staff so I would have better coverage and could go to Sloan and have it covered. Between that and surviving numerous layoffs my current situation changed but I've been treated very well by them. They certainly went above and beyond what most companies would do.

Joe brought up a good point about the IT field. Things change, it's hard to keep up even if you do not take time off.

Thanks for all of the comments, I'm glad I was able to post something worthwhile on this part of the board.

I did make another post about end of life issues...but that one can wait!

KathiM's picture
Posts: 8077
Joined: Aug 2005

So, I could 'hide' my treatment year fairly well..

But, you have brought up a VERY interesting thought...why should I need to?

Thank you, dearheart, for the food for thought!!

Hugs, Kathi

johnnybegood's picture
Posts: 1122
Joined: Oct 2008

also thanks phil for posting this.i fall into the cant do what i used too job catagory.they say they dont discriminate so why do they ask questions like age,sex,your race and i really liked this one on a recent application...have you been working with a vocational rehab program... all this is bull.we have fought for our lives and won why cant we have a chance to get back in the work force too...johnnybegood

HeartofSoul's picture
Posts: 730
Joined: Dec 2009

My view is its none of the employers business regarding our personal health and in a great many cases, will be used against us even though the official response from HR or hiring mgr is "we found a more suitable candidate" or "we located a better fit". I have been a type 1 diabetic since age 20 in 1977 and kept my disease to myself in working world until the year 2001 when i applied to beocme a organ recipient on UNOS list for a pancreas due to my bodies lack of awareness for low blood sugar levels (below 35). I needed a week of evaluations at the Univ of Minn and needed to be away form work and then when i was called by the med center to have the organ transplanted, i told my employer of 5 yrs why i will be out for 4 weeks. When i came back to work, the first day, I was let go but the reason (fabricated) was due to layoff and cuts in budget. Ya right, i just had a excellent review and salary raise 3 months previously.

And at that time my condition was about diabetes and organ transplant, not cancer. When i was dx with cancer in Feb 2008 and working at large employer at the time, i mentioned my situation to a couple of co workers i thought i could trust. One of the co workers went to her boss and said it was inappropriate for me to share my condition and i got written up for it. today when im at work, i will not utter a $%#^& word that even remotely speaks of cancer to anyone and that includes when im on the phone, in kitchen or in the facility or nearby restaurants.

I trust employers and most employees like i do cancer, dont turn your back

New Flower
Posts: 4299
Joined: Aug 2009

Hi everyone,
Very interesting discussion, but let be honest who is going to try shocking your potential employer with truth?
Please do not forget what kind of reaction you got from your family and friends talking about your diagnosis. I have gotten everything from silence, shock, No this could be a mistake, slide were mixed up ... you can make your own list. What was your first reaction when you heard about your Big C? I was the one comforting my friends, I telling them I could be fine. Why do you think people conducting interviews are different? Nobody can predict human reaction to events which has nothing to do with your job, unless the job is a social worker, professional caregiver, nurse, medical professional...
Yes, we are heros. we know it, we feel confident and are sure that after we beat cancer nothing is impossible or difficult to achieve.
With 12% unemployment I personally have not taking my chances to talk about my medical conditions to my co-workers and boss.
Many of us were laid off during cancer treatment or after we came back. Nobody left job to battle cancer, it was opposite
You usually should not bring your children, religious affiliation, spouse or other personal issues during interview process. Why you are going to bring cancer? Personal choice and intuition will tell you...

Good luck to everyone who is looking for a job after cancer.
I have been among lucky ones who did find a job after 11 months, as I was laid off on my last day of radiation treatment
New Flower

HeartofSoul's picture
Posts: 730
Joined: Dec 2009

Amen New Flower, well said. thank you

jazzy1's picture
Posts: 1385
Joined: Mar 2010

I tend to agree with New Flower and Heartofsoul....in today's environment employers can be choosey. If they know we've had cancer, they could decline us for employment...or basically have a reason to oust us. Why not look for someone with good health, especially if they're footing most of the bill for our group health insurance (assuming in this case scenario). Insurance is expensive and I know many of my friends who've been looking for employment, end up having a physical before the company will hire them. They'll know we've got cancer at that point and not offer the position.

On the other side, I'm all about honesty and would love nothing but to be honest with my employer. You bet we're fighters, but I don't know if I throw it in my potential employers face.

I guess it also depends on the employer....what type of person are they looking for to fill the position???? Many my be afraid we'd end up with cancer again and with the costs involved for treatments, tend to think that'll bring up their rates for insurance and/or we'll be out on medical leave and cost them money.

I'm a 1099 contractor so I've had to carry my own health insurance and this doesn't hurt any type of work I encounter. Why would any of these employers care, as long as I do my job they've contracted me out to do....right?

Many sides to look at this and glad to have the option to think about it and post my thoughts.

Happy Monday!

bluerose's picture
Posts: 1112
Joined: Jul 2009

I agree. In a perfect world it would be lovely to apply for a job and lay it all on the table and have the prospective boss jump to his feet after hearing your story (with a choir of angels singing in the background) clapping for your strength and success and welcoming you to the company but um, not a perfect world.

Wow that sounded cynical but I believe that just isn't going to happen, even if you rachet that scene down a billion times. Bottomline - the word 'cancer' is icky. Uncomfortable to hear and think about for Joe average (no offense Joe, lol). Like someone implied on this topic, what was your reaction to that word 'cancer' when you found out it applied to you? What did others who are close to you think and say? Carry that further - what would a person who doesn't even know you think or say? They only hear that one word 'cancer' and everything is tainted after that. It's the way it is, unfortunate but I think real.

So what to do with that when we go out looking for work? I have no answer for that. I have too many side effects from treatments to even be able to fantasize about working ever again so I am not the one to ask really. I think that becoming an entrepreneur might be the answer. YOu know your strengths, you know all you have learned from your cancer experiences - make that all work for you together with maybe some other expertise you might have developed before cancer came knocking. I think those combinations are dynamite and then no need to 'explain' your situation to anyone.

I personally think that after cancer we are in a unique position to share what we have learned through whatever creative outlet is more comfortable to us. Write a book, not just on the cancer experience but apply what that taught you to other subjects you might know well and enjoy. Open a business catering to the needs of disabled folk - knowing personally what you needed along the way, develope a product that might help those stricken with not only cancer but other life threatening/altering illnesses as well. Book public speaking focus groups on issues that might be of interest to those in the medical fields - from a patients perspective - teach them something about what we as patients really think and feel. That's the only place that I think we could feel truly honest and comfortable in working - free to be honest with our situation.

Of course on the other hand you could work on selling yourself, based on all the strengths you have found through dealing with cancer, to a prospective employer and if that moves you then go for it. I just hate the idea, personally, of feeling I 'have to explain my cancer' and I don't feel I should have to.

Anywho that was a good article Phil. Thanks for that.


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