Tara Cernacek was just six weeks into her new job as an executive assistant at a Brooklyn-based nonprofit when she was diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer, triple positive. A former CEW employee, she knew about Cancer and Careers, a CEW Foundation program, and immediately consulted its Web site to get tips on how to inform her employer.
This story first appeared in the June 27, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“It’s only stage 2, don’t worry,” a boss short on sympathy told her. “You’re not that sick.”
Cernacek underwent 12 grueling months of chemotherapy, scheduling her intravenous sessions at 6 a.m. so she was only half an hour late for work, then staying late to make up the minutes. She never asked for time off beyond her vacation and paid sick leave. Although the fatigue was mostly manageable, there were days when she was exhausted and in pain from radiation therapy.
Five months before the end of her treatment, Cernacek heard rumblings of a reorganization and layoffs at her office. She turned to Cancer and Careers again for legal advice as well as job searching tools. She also joined the Cancer and Careers support group. “It was so comforting,” said Cernacek. “I didn’t think that I needed it, but I did. People share stories, tips and advice and you feel that sense of you’re not alone in this.”
In April 2013 she was laid off. Without the distraction of work, Cernacek found herself at home worrying about money and the next treatment. “I realized how much I wanted to work to maintain normalcy,” she says.
Cernacek’s hair has grown back thicker and she feels strong, apart from treatment-induced side effects, such as neuropathy in her fingers and toes and some lingering memory and concentration issues, commonly referred to as “chemo-brain.” She has landed a few temp jobs since then, which she credits to Cancer and Careers’ résumé review service. She’s actively looking for a full-time job.
“I’m not working, but it’s not by choice. I want to work.”
Indeed, work is a lifeline for most people with cancer, and a 2012 survey from Cancer and Careers and Harris Interactive confirmed this.
“Seventy-nine percent [of the survey respondents] felt that their recovery from cancer was aided by work,” said Kate Sweeney, executive director of Cancer and Careers. “It reaffirmed why we do what we do. In the top three reasons why cancer patients want to continue to work, it wasn’t financial and insurance. More important was that when people felt well enough, they wanted to keep things as normal as possible and they wanted to feel productive.”
Cancers and Careers is dedicated exclusively to serving people who work during and after cancer treatment. It was founded in 2001 after the CEW board realized that five out of some 40 board members, or 12.5 percent, had been diagnosed with cancer. All faced the same difficult decision tree of whom to tell at work (if anyone); how and when to tell them; how to balance treatment and work, and all the other considerations that cancer patients face after diagnosis, no matter their job or level. Sweeney was the first hire, charged with creating a Web site for working women with cancer. The goal: to educate and empower them.
Thirteen years later, Cancer and Careers has evolved into a multimedia clearinghouse, reaching men and women through its comprehensive Web site, print publications, in-person conferences, support groups, Webinars and teleconferences. It holds speaking engagements for health care professionals, patients, survivors and cancer organizations, and trains health care professionals at cancer centers and online. And every document, service and program is free.
In 2013, it provided essential information and resources to almost 300,000 people on cancerandcareers.org and cancerandcareers.org/espanol and distributed publications in English and Spanish to more than 40,000 people. Those numbers will be even higher this year, said Sweeney. The program publishes a bimonthly newsletter that reaches more than 8,100 subscribers.
Meanwhile, Cancer and Careers has trained more than 1,600 oncology nurses, social workers and health care professionals.
Cancer and Careers is always on the lookout for new ways to improve its reach, content and initiatives. The organization recently teamed with Oberlander Group, a Cohoes, N.Y.-based print and digital design agency, to develop an advertising and marketing campaign with the tag line “Be The Boss Over Cancer.” The digital campaign will be launched this year.
Geographical outreach is a priority for the program. “We’re going into underserved areas in Hawaii, the Deep South and Alaska,” Sweeney said. “We’ll go to those regions and have an all-day in-service to educate their health care professionals and hold a patient event.”
To cover the country, the organization’s full-day National Conference on Work & Cancer, held annually in New York, is rolling out to other cities. The first Midwest conference was held in Chicago in April, and next year a Los Angeles event will be added. Both will be annual events.
Résumé review was introduced in January, and so far about 150 people have taken advantage of the service. A user fills out a short questionnaire and uploads his or her résumé. After the submission has been vetted by someone from the Cancer and Careers team, it is forwarded to Julie Jansen, a résumé and LinkedIn profile writer, career coach and consultant, who goes over the résumé and sends her feedback. (She does not rewrite it.) The process takes seven to 10 business days.
Jasan Zimmerman, a 38-year-old molecular biologist-turned-nonprofit administrator, recently revamped his résumé with her help. Zimmerman has lived with cancer his entire life, after being diagnosed at six months with neuroblastoma and then at 15 with thyroid cancer that recurred between college and grad school. He works at a large family foundation in the Bay Area, and his aim is to find a position in a cancer-related nonprofit.
After studying his résumé, Jansen suggested that Zimmerman switch the focus from science to his nonprofit work by leading with his nonprofit experience, removing the dates from the science part and adding a bulleted “key word section” listing his skills and expertise. She also recommended that he move his scientific publications to an addendum.
“I think it looks a lot better and it’s a lot more focused on what I want to do,” said Zimmerman, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif.
Zimmerman was given the program’s new 60-page workbook, “Job Search Tools.” “It’s a great resource now and it will definitely be a touchstone for me in the future.”
The workbook can be downloaded or ordered free of charge from the Web site, along with publications about other topics, including a “Chronic Illness Survival Guide” and “Cancer on a Shoestring Survival Guide.”
Finally, Cancer and Careers is introducing a news hub within the next six months. “It’s a one-stop shop for all the news and research on work and cancer,” said Sweeney. “We’re trying to bring everything together to move the conversation forward.”
Mitria Di Giacomo had left her advertising and marketing job in 2007 and was starting her own agency in New York when she got a breast cancer diagnosis. Desperate for more information, she researched cancer-related topics online. “I was out of control,” she says. “I was constantly doing a search.” One night, she Googled support groups and came upon one at Cancer and Careers. She e-mailed and asked to join.
The organization has been a boon to her professionally, financially and emotionally. “You’re making some of the most difficult decisions during one of the most traumatic times of your life,” Di Giacomo explained. “So much comes at you. During that time, when it was all so new, it took the edge off of how to approach this. I felt like I had a map on how to handle or disclose or if a question came up. I found my way through the support and the group and the business coach.”
Much of the practical advice came in handy, including tips on negotiating doctor’s rates. “[Cancer] definitely affects your income. You could go from a six-figure income to making a third of that,” she said. “I didn’t realize that you can actually negotiate with your doctors.” She did, and they came to agreements.
She has also made some “wonderful friends” through Cancer and Careers and still attends the monthly meetings. “I’m so connected to it.”
Seven years after her diagnosis, she’s building her marketing and communications agency, Nexus Plexus, with renewed vigor. Her aim is to have a boutique consultancy — not more than 20 clients — focused on luxury lifestyle categories. And preferably international accounts so she can maybe spend summers in Italy.
“When I had my mastectomy, I was like, that’s it. I’ve been afraid to move forward,” she said, adding, “You don’t give up on your ideal vision. It’s still there. It took a little while.”