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Career exploration

Tammy Lee, M.Ed., CCC, Vocational Rehabilitation Counsellor and Clinical Practice Leader, GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre, Vancouver

Ms. Tammy Lee has a Master’s degree in counselling psychology and is a Canadian Certified Counsellor. She is a vocational rehabilitation counsellor and clinical practice leader at G. F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver. The Strong Centre is well known for providing specialized vocational rehabilitation services to clients with physical, neuromuscular, and cognitive disabilities resulting from health conditions or injuries. It offers vocational counselling and assessment to improve clients’ employment prospects by exploring realistic job options, developing return-to-work strategies, and determining any needed work accommodations. Ms. Lee serves on the Board of Directors of the BC Chapter, Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association.

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Many Canadians are living with cancer and have distinctive vocational needs as a result. After experiencing cancer, there are many factors that could affect a career decision. For example, some people may experience physica, psychological and cognitive changes due to side effects of surgery, medication, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy. During and after cancer treatment, you may have different priorities and values in your life that impact vocational goals. Career planning is an essential step to finding a suitable occupation and preparing for the demands of the workplace. This process involves identifying and addressing health-related, personal, psychological, social and occupational obstacles to employment.

Career exploration can help you plan a realistic career path, prepare for the workplace, select a suitable educational program, and inform you of the labour market demands.

“Career development is about growing through life and work; about learning, experiencing, living, working and changing; about creating and discovering pathways through one’s life and work.” (The Blueprint for Life/Work Designs)


Note: You can review this information by yourself, but you may require assistance from a vocational rehabilitation counsellor.

Are you looking to choose a career path? Move on to Self-Assessment


Making a career change

Getting back to work can be a sign of recovery from the cancer and treatment as well as a measure of how far you have come.

Cancer can have a profound impact and can cause individuals to re-evaluate how they want to live their lives.

Cancer, however, may have been a difficult challenge for you and your family both physically and mentally. On a practical level, it may also influence how you feel about working and how you return to your job. Cancer can have a profound impact and can cause individuals to re-evaluate how they want to live their lives. This includes how they want to work, or whether they even want to continue working.

For cancer survivors, considering a career change is common due to many circumstances arising from personal, social and medical reasons. Perhaps you don’t want to go back to your previous job or have difficulty performing your job duties. It is necessary to accept any health or physical limitations such as fatigue and side effects of cancer treatment that may affect your job options and to seek help on how you could cope with them.

Here are some helpful steps you can take to resume working as early as possible after cancer and treatment. Changing a job takes a lot of effort and energy. Thinking about a career change includes assessing potential challenges as well as considering solutions and options. The goal is to find a suitable career and regain the benefits of working.

Here are 3 steps to career exploration:

  1. Self-assessment
  2. Define your job targets
  3. Decision time – goal setting

Note: You can review this information by yourself, but you may require assistance from a vocational rehabilitation counsellor.

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Is career change the right choice for me?

Before changing a career path, it is important to evaluate all the possibilities with your current employer (if you are currently employed). Please refer to the accommodation section if you are considering whether or not to return to your previous employment.

For instance, you want to consider whether accommodations can be made that will make your present job doable, or whether you can use your existing skills in a different position in the same company. Please make an appointment with a vocational rehabilitation counsellor in your region if you need further assistance with this topic.

Self-assessment (recognize your strengths and capabilities)

Overview of the career assessment process: The first step in career planning is to learn about your interests, skills, values, personality traits as well as physical and cognitive capabilities (current and long-term). In times of change and challenge, your own sense of direction and purpose is more important than ever.

Use as many resources including vocational rehabilitation counsellors, Internet resources, self-help/career books from your local library, career planning courses/agencies in your community, and disability counsellors in educational settings. Career assessment involves not just career testing but also information gathering, decision-making, and goal-setting.

Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Career influences: Growing up, what kinds of career aspirations did you have? What did your parents do? How did they talk about careers with you? How about your culture? Review your employment, training and volunteer experience.
  • School history: How did you do in school? What subjects did you like? What did you dislike? How well did you do in school? Did you have learning assistance? Were you diagnosed with a learning disability? How were/are your work habits?
  • Employment history: What jobs have you held? What have you liked? What have you disliked? What have you learned about yourself?
  • Career ideas: What decisions are you grappling with now? Do you have ideas about what you’d like to do? What’s stopping you?
  • Practical considerations: Where do you live? Do you plan to stay there or are you flexible? Do you have family responsibilities or financial constraints? Do you have health issues?

What are my interests, abilities, values and personality traits?

Senior couple on cycle ride in countrysideMy interests

  • In career exploration, interests refer to things, activities or tasks you enjoy doing. Interests help identify an area of your preference. They can point you to certain occupational areas that reflect your favourite activities.
  • Exploring interests can generate ideas about potential job options by expanding occupational areas that you did not consider in the past.
  • How to brainstorm interests:
    • Think about activities you like to do in your spare time.
    • Think about what subjects you liked and disliked when you were in school. Did you enjoy participating in any school clubs or volunteer activities?
    • Ask friends or family members what type of activities and events you enjoy the most.
    • Think about the jobs that you have had and see what you liked about your previous jobs or duties.
  • Examples of interests: cooking, helping others, writing, working outdoors, using power tools, public speaking, etc.
  • You can also seek guidance from a vocational rehabilitation counsellor if you need help with this exercise.
  • Check the following websites and make a list of what you are interested in:

My abilities

  • Abilities can range from general aptitude (for example, capacity to learn) to specific ones such as abilities in math, music or sports. In career planning, it is important to focus on abilities that you’re good at (for example, problem solving).
  • Cancer patients can experience some limitations that affect physical, cognitive and emotional abilities that can lead to obstacles in deciding what is a realistic or suitable career path. It is possible that cancer and/or treatment has made it difficult to go back to a previous job. For instance, many cancer survivors complain of fatigue at one time or another, and have side effects from cancer treatment. Some of these symptoms can be temporary, but others can persist for a long time. If you are experiencing ongoing challenges, it may be helpful to consult with a physician or healthcare team member and seek help. There are various ways of coping. Research shows a person’s own assessment of work potential and expectation of job success could affect career outcome. (Article: Work ability and return-to-work in cancer patientsFor ideas on how to assess your abilities, see the Assessment of your Work Abilities section.
  • If you have any questions or concerns about your current abilities, please consult with your physician. Note: Counselling support by a vocational rehabilitation counsellor, vocational counsellor, social worker, counsellor or psychologist may be able to assist you to gather and integrate this information, and to make an informed choice. They may be able to help you jointly formulate specific short- and long-term goals to help you achieve your ultimate goal of working in your desired occupation.
  • Check the following websites and make a list of your abilities:

Senior couple on cycle rideMy transferable skills

  • There are a variety of skills you have gained through education, employment, social activities and life experiences. These include specific abilities such as typing skills, public speaking skills, and administration skills such as letter writing, billing, scheduling and filing.
  • Remember that you can often improve skills with training and practice (for example, computer knowledge).
  • What are transferable skills?
    • These are skills, strengths and practical knowledge that can be transferred from one job to another. For example, having good verbal communication skills is transferable since it is required for most positions.
    • You can ask your past co-workers, classmates or teachers to describe your professional strengths. Identifying your transferable skills is a very important step to recognizing your strengths.
    • If you find it difficult to think of your own skills, speak with a vocational rehabilitation counsellor.
    • Here is a website for more information on how to identify transferable skills: Transferable Job Skills for Job-Seekers

My work values (what is important to you?)

  • Values address the questions “What is important to me?” and “What kind of life do I want to live?”
  • Research shows that personal and work values play a very important role in career choice and career satisfaction. Experiencing cancer can influence how people view their lives. Usually, this includes re-evaluating what kind of work they want to do. Exploring values will help narrow down career choices whether you are going back to a previous job, or considering other jobs at your current workplace or with different employers.
  • Examples of work-related values: positive attitude, adventure versus security, independence, leadership, knowledge, honesty, power.
  • Here are some links related to values:

My personality traits

During the self-assessment phase, you can obtain information on a wide range of occupational options, many of which you may not have previously known about or considered. Once you have generated a list of potential occupations, the next step is to narrow down your list.

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Define your job targets (ideal vs. realistic)

Exploring jobs: Check if your employment goal is achievable (short term vs. long term).

The Career Handbook is a useful online tool that provides a detailed vocational profile for an occupation based on the National Occupational Classification (NOC) to further your career exploration and decision-making. “It includes information on aptitudes, interests, involvement with data/people/things, physical activities, environmental conditions, education/training indicators, career progression and work settings.” Click here to obtain the National Occupational Classification (NOC) code. Let’s say you are interested in a technical sales position, the National Occupational Classification (NOC) code for this type of work is 6221.

Conduct labour market exploration: Gather information about occupations, work availability, wage rates, employment outlooks, education, training and economic trends in your geographical location.

Labour market information can be found at:

Businesswoman sitting at desk and makes a note in office.Informational interview: Perform an informational interview with someone who works in the field of your interest.

Note: Most employers want specific skills or competencies, or confidence demonstrated by your work history, training, volunteering/community participation, and references.

Training exploration: If you want to acquire new skills or need additional training, it’s time to conduct research on various training institutions once you narrow down your occupational choice(s). Find information on programs, prerequisites, start dates, educational costs, etc. If you are planning to attend a vocational/college program, it is recommended to find a program with a practicum where you can obtain direct field or work experience. Also, you can try to identify employers who might be willing to provide training on the job.

Seek volunteering or job shadowing opportunities (e.g. call community and non-profit associations for opportunities, volunteer through school).

Note: If you are funded by insurance, find out whether or not volunteering is permitted in advance.

Start networking to learn more about your career choice and meet people with similar interests.

Seeking self-employment opportunity – Interested in starting your own business?

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Decision time – goal setting

Break down the steps necessary for achieving a goal into sub-goals. Use the SMART criteria when specifying sub-goals. Sub-goals should be:

Measurable (how will you measure progress toward, or achievement of, sub-goal?)
Realistic (and/or rewarding)
and Time-specific

Read more: The Beginner’s Guide to Goal Setting

Be realistic

  • Understand your ability to function in regards to different tasks at work.
  • Understand your work demands.
  • Plan accordingly.

Use your recovery time to anticipate and address challenges

  • Take control of the process.
  • Pursue opportunities to improve your function.
  • Start talking to your doctor and your employer about working.
There is no one perfect career choice for anyone.
It takes time to decide on a specific career or occupation you want to pursue. There is no one perfect career choice for anyone, but you can make a good choice based on the information you have gathered about yourself, disability resources and the labour market.

Develop an action plan: A series of steps you plan to take to reach your goal. This means planning and completing small intermediate goals to get there. Watch this video by Dr. Douglas Ozier from the B.C. Cancer Agency to learn about setting personal goals:

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Preparing for employment: steps you can take today

G.F. Strong Rehab Centre

  • Develop better health management.
  • Take part-time post-secondary courses.
  • Set realistic goals – small steps.
  • Volunteer your talents and time.
  • Upgrade your academic skills.
  • Research the labour market.
  • Improve your communication skills.
  • Inform yourself about disability resources.
  • Improve your computer skills.
  • Assess yourself – skills, values, interests.
  • Vocational Rehabilitation Counselling.

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