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Ms. Maureen Parkinson, Vocational Rehabilitation Counsellor, M.Ed. C.C.R.C, BC Cancer

Ms. Maureen Parkinson is the province-wide vocational rehabilitation counsellor at the BC Cancer Agency. She has also been vocational rehabilitation counsellor at a public rehabilitation hospital and vocational rehabilitation consultant to insurance companies and the court system. She has instructed and facilitated Service-Canada-funded programs on job searching and career exploration. Ms. Parkinson has a Masters in Counselling Psychology, is a Canadian Certified Rehabilitation Counsellor, and completed the Certified Return to Work Coordinator Program through the National Institute for Disability Management and Research. She has developed return-to-work and job-search seminars for cancer patients and created the guidebook “Cancer and Returning to Work: A Practical Guide for Cancer Patients” as well as on-line articles about returning to work and school. She also co-authored a paper commissioned by the Canadian Association of Psychosocial Oncology, “Cancer and Work: A Canadian Perspective”.

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People who have had cancer may worry about how to explain gaps in their work history during a job interview. It is important to remember that discussing gaps is only one part of the interview process. Sharpening your interview skills and preparing yourself for challenging questions will greatly enhance your chances for success.

Become an expert in job searches: Research, get feedback and take available courses in job searching so that you obtain a competitive edge over other candidates. Sometimes the difference in obtaining a job or not is how polished you are in a job interview. Interview skills can be learned and constantly improved. There are many free programs online through libraries and local government–funded employment programs to teach you to excel in an interview. Employers are often impressed by those who make the effort to learn to present themselves well. Furthermore, doing your research on a company shows them not only that you are motivated to succeed but also that you are enthusiastic about the position.

Remind yourself of your work strengths: When applying for a job, it is important to remind yourself of the skills, qualifications and attributes you have to offer the employer. Create a list of these for yourself and ask your friends and others who know your strengths to add on to it.

Put things into perspective: Remind yourself that taking time off for cancer or treatment only reflects a small aspect of your work history and does not reflect your full work history or your capacity to contribute in the future. Given the current economic situation, there has been a rise in people working as independent consultants as well as people taking time off for childcare or elder care. As such, it is not uncommon to see gaps in work history.

Know your capacity: If you are worried about whether you can perform a job, take the time to assess yourself and ideally apply for a job you can do. This will enable you to attend the interview confidently since you will know that you can meet the demands of the job. For ideas on how to assess your function, see step 2: assess functioning section. If you are unsure that your capabilities match the demands of the job, informational interviews can be very helpful in clarifying the demands before it is posted without having to tell the employer about any concerns you may have.

A job interview is not a confession: If you are able to do the job without any accommodation and there are no safety concerns, there may be no need to disclose your cancer history. If you decide to discuss your health history, keep the discussion short and simple. The longer you talk on this topic, the more likely the employer will think this is an area to ask more about. To feel comfortable with your answers, practice this with someone (ideally someone who hires people) so that they can give you feedback on your answers and help you be more comfortable and polished.

Lying in a job interview can be grounds for dismissal later, so when discussing how you spent your time off, this should be based on truth. Some people can quite honestly say they stopped working to re-evaluate their career path as it is not unusual to do this after being diagnosed with cancer. You need to find your own explanation that works for you in the work environment you are applying for.

Here are examples of what others have said:

“I took time off to rethink my career or travel which gave me the time to allow me to refocus on what I want to do.”
“I had some family/health issues to deal with; these have been resolved, and I am ready to go.”

In some cases (especially living in a small community or in a field where everyone knows each other), people may have heard that you have been off work for illness and it is likely the employer will know about it. In this situation, you may feel the need to address it in some way, especially if you feel not doing so may cause more problems or misunderstandings. Still, you need not provide details.
You will need to find your own words that fit your situation. These are some of the ways others have handled health-related questions.

“I took time off for a personal health issue, which has been resolved. My doctor has given me the health seal of approval, and I am keen to work.”
“I have taken time off for a health challenge, which has been resolved and I am eager to get back to work.”
“I took time off for cancer, and my doctor has cleared me; after this diagnosis I am even clearer how I want to make a difference in my career.”

It is very helpful when disclosing that you pair a positive statement or you sandwich what you are disclosing between two positive statements. Also, be focused on the future.
Paired statement: “I took time off for a health challenge, which has been resolved and the time off has made me even more excited to start working.”
Sandwich statement: “I am very keen to contribute to your organization. I took time off for a health challenge, which thankfully has been resolved, and that time off made me even more focused to get back to this kind of work.”

See also:

Disclosing cancer-related disability and need for accommodation during a job interview

Other helpful job search resources