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CEW at 65: Cancer + Careers Expands Its Reach

Over the last 18 years, Cancer + Careers has become an invaluable resource for helping cancer patients navigate workplace issues.

Since its inception in 2000, Cancer + Careers has had a singular focus on helping people diagnosed with cancer navigate the workplace. From legal and logistical issues to the emotional, the organization has touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. C+C was originally the brainchild of CEW president Carlotta Jacobson, who was moved to action after numerous friends were diagnosed with cancer. She recognized the need for an entity that would help people navigate the non-medical side of the disease, and Cancer + Careers was born. To this day, it remains close to her heart. “I’m very proud of it,” she said. “It’s the only charity that addresses women and men in the workplace. It has become an important organization for other organizations.”

Jacobson is quick to credit C+C executive director Rebecca Nellis and chairwoman Heidi Manheimer and the team, which now numbers 10 full-time staffers, with Cancer + Career’s success. What started as a web site has blossomed into a nationwide multiplatform content and educational universe that reaches patients, employers and the medical community. (The only states Nellis hasn’t yet personally visited are Kansas, Arkansas, West Virginia, Idaho and Kentucky.) Recently, the duo sat down with WWD to talk about how Cancer + Careers is evolving as it nears it 20th anniversary, the role the beauty industry has played in driving growth and some stand-out moments from the industry’s most memorable events.

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WWD: How has Cancer + Careers evolved since it began?

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Rebecca Nellis: CEW had always had a pillar around philanthropy, and would make grants to women-oriented organizations with the proceeds from the annual December luncheon. But around 2000, five board members came to Carlotta at different moments and shared they had been diagnosed with cancer. Each had a great deal of access to good medical information and care, but they weren’t finding any information on what to do about their jobs. Work was critical to this group of women, they were groundbreakers in their own way. Carlotta had a real aha moment, recognizing that rather than being a grant-making organization, CEW could launch a program that would address the work-related issues that come after a cancer diagnosis. The idea to begin with was to create a web site with well-vetted content, but as with any really good idea where there is a gap in care and a void in service, there was so much more to do. We’ve gone from a web site to publications in both English and Spanish to programming that directly serves the cancer community, patient survivors and health care professionals, as well as employers and coworkers and managers.

WWD: Heidi, how did you first get involved in the organization?

Heidi Manheimer: I joined the CEW board about 18 years ago, when Cancer + Careers was just coming to fruition. Because it was so personal to the board, there was a great reception from the members to get involved. We would talk together about how to approach our Human Resources communities and get these programs going. It’s been the huge support of the industry that has gotten us to this point so far, where we are a thought leader in the space.

WWD: Why is this important to you both personally and professionally, as a ceo?

H.M.: Being part of CEW and seeing this happen to many of my peers — there is nothing more personal than growing up in an industry and watching people grapple with this. Professionally, as a ceo, you want to be able to do something for anyone on your team and also give the organization a tool to be able to deal properly with this situation.

WWD: Rebecca, you’ve been with the organization for 15 years, and became executive director two years ago. What is your vision and your dream?

R.N.: The dream is that we become completely unnecessary, because everyone knows what to do when this happens. That’s not reality, though, so our goal is to provide meaningful actionable programs, services and content for both the person going through it and their companies. We want to make sure that people feel like they have choices. We are always going to be a unique and niche organization. We’re not trying to be the Coca-Cola of the cancer community. We want to provide really valuable programs for people who are facing a work issue and that’s been true all along. What’s evolved is where those poles are have changed. It was pretty innovative to have a web site 18 years ago and now we’re talking about how to make our content as interactive as possible, with multiple access points and touch points.

WWD: What are some key elements of the programmatic areas, and how do you approach different constituencies?

R.N.: Some of our programs are about breadth, reaching the most number of people. The web site is a great example of this — we want it to be comprehensive, credible and constantly evolving to be meaningful to the time we’re living in in its interpretation of the work world. We also focus on programs from an in-depth perspective. Our job-intensive workshops, for example, are all-day events where 10 to 18 people come and we delve into each element of looking for work. We partner with a career coach to focus on the tactical parts of the job search and we bring the emotional and psychological experience into that, so we’re interpreting what those challenges are through the actual experience of the person. We also think about access points — not everyone wants to or can travel, but they need the information, so we have webinars and teleconferences; we have a career coaching board, where you can post a question and get an answer. We’re always thinking about how to make sure people, wherever they are in the U.S., can get this information in a way that’s meaningful to them.

WWD: Your impact has been incredible — the stats are eye-popping.

R.N.: In 2017, we reached over 500,000 people online, in print and in person. We distributed more than 70,000 publications in English and Spanish. We’ve awarded over $163,162 in travel grants that have brought 236 scholarship recipients from all 50 states to the C+C national conference since 2012. And over 1,100 job-hunting survivors have had their résumés reviewed free of charge since 2013.

WWD: What are the goals for the next five years?

H.M.: We’re trying to be in more places and expand in a greater way. One of our board’s jobs is to support this type of growth and make sure that we can get these programs to even more people. With that in mind, as the industry has given us this huge opportunity and remains the biggest piece of C+C for funding, we’re adding board members outside of the beauty industry that will give us the opportunity to grow by bringing in new funders. Additionally, we can reach out to other industries and offer this service through their organizations, as well, so that’s a huge and exciting change. We gave 40 presentations last year, looking beyond the places we usually look to for opportunities and speaking to new audiences. For example, we were on a panel at South by Southwest. It was a platform and a way to go to a completely different audience and have a much broader reach.

R.N.: We’re also looking at how we can take 18 years of research, investment, thinking and thought leadership and use it in ways that may help other people. We’re working on a small project focused on the European Union right now, where we’re taking our content that is transferable and pulling together a tool kit that can be adaptive to other countries.

WWD: What are some of the common questions you get?

R.N.: Do I have to disclose my diagnosis at work? Will I get fired if I disclose my diagnosis at work? What are my legal rights? We also have a very robust set of programs around job search; people have a lot of questions around what to talk about in an interview if they’ve had to take a gap in working because of treatment, for example.

WWD: How do people find C+C?

R.N.: The two key ways are a random Google search, where search optimization and marketing have been important to us. Also, we’re really embedded in the cancer community. We go to events for nurses and social workers and we have programs specifically for them that are accredited, so they can get credits toward their license by attending the programs.

WWD: You’ve excelled at the fund-raising side, and the annual December lunch is one of the most emotional in the beauty industry. What stands out for you both about those?

R.N.: What’s been very memorable for me is that in the last two years, we’ve brought the subject of our annual survival video to our event and have had them speak. That’s changed the luncheon entirely — it just brings it differently to life.

H.M.: It hits home. It’s really an important change.

WWD: How do you choose a survivor for the video?

R.N.: For the last two years, they were people who got scholarships to our National Conference, one from a tiny town in Louisiana, the other from San Francisco, so having them speak to the room makes it a richer experience. They’re so grateful for the support they got from us and eager to make sure others can have access, they’re willing to tell their story on film and stand in the room.

WWD: How do you deal with the emotional side of it on a day-to-day basis?

R.N.: It’s not easy, but it’s such a privilege to help other people. Checking your own stuff at the door, and just being present for someone — sometimes we can’t solve someone’s problem, but they just needed an ear or the next suggestion or the next little thing that they could do to take action and that is, in fact, helping them. We focus on what’s a meaningful thing we could offer someone in this circumstance.

H.M.: It’s emotional and certainly the luncheon is emotional. But also, at the events I’ve been to and at the conference, what’s always most remarkable is that the people who come are not coming in a sad way. They’re coming with the attitude, ‘I have a problem and I’m here to learn how to solve it.’ There is this feeling that you’re happy to have the resources and answers and, while it is emotional, you leave admiring other people’s strength.

R.N.: Our approach has always been about empowerment and positivity. Whether you’re going to work another week or another 30 years, we’re helping you address that immediate moment. Our tagline is, ‘Be the boss over cancer,’ because it’s about how you can take charge and have choices. So much of a cancer diagnosis treatment experience isn’t about your own choices, so to help someone take back control over the things that they can is a huge deal.

WWD: The first C+C National Conference was in 2011 and has grown exponentially. You’ve wrangled the leading minds in medicine and the workplace. What can we expect to see this year?

R.N.: We now have over 400 attendees, and a great pool of speakers both internal and external. We have more topics than can be covered in a given year, which means we can rotate things in and out and speak to returning attendees and new ones. Each year, our charge is to come up with one or two additional angles. This year, we’re working on a new session with a social worker that will be focused on setting productive boundaries at work and at home, so you can figure out how to deliver on your job without going over the deep end. We’re also working on a panel from the human resources perspective, because that’s a really big topic. We just became accredited for HR professionals, so now they get professional development credits when they attend our programs in the hopes that we can continue to change conversations on the company side and for the individual.

H.M.: The communication aspect of it is a big focus: Who do you talk to, how do you have these conversations?

R.N.: People have mixed feelings of HR as a concept. Some HR departments are advocacy-oriented and helpful and go above and beyond, but it can also be a role that is focused on protecting the company and administering things exactly as they were written. Helping to break down those barriers and hear from some great people who are in HR about what they’ve done in these circumstances will help our audience have new ideas of how to talk to their HR teams. We’ve also just launched a new series of videos on how to support a coworker, including what to say and what not to say, because there are some real “nots.”

WWD: QVC has also been an integral partner when it comes to fund-raising, with the “Beauty With Benefits” show. How is that relationship growing?

H.M.: QVC has been extraordinary. We’ve been doing the “Beauty With Benefits” broadcast since 2014 and it has become a huge source of funding and exposure for us.

R.N.: You know that game you play that if your organization was given $1 million would you have a plan for it? We lived that. It totally changed our possibilities by virtue of this huge influx of funding that came from the industry coming together and heeding the call. It’s become an annual partnership and project, and we’re working on the 2019 broadcast right now. This year, with parent company Qurate, HSN has joined the mix and it’s going to be a five-hour event — two hours on QVC, followed by two hours on HSN, followed by an hour on Beauty iQ. We’ll have about 40– 45 brands, including MAC, Laura Geller and many more, and will also have some key influencers involved.

H.M.: The support and participation of the beauty industry will forever be the backbone of C+C, and it’s exciting to take everything the industry has done and open up funding streams to make sure we continue to grow and flourish.

R.N.: What Heidi and I talk a lot about is how does C+C become an institution, one that will stand alone and help people for more years to come.

WWD: Why do you think you work so well together?

H.M.: We’ve known each other since the beginning. I thought it was really trailblazing of Carlotta to create a foundation within CEW, and seeing Rebecca’s passion behind it is pure joy. We have the opportunity and responsibility and connections to be able to spend time on something that gives back and does good to a community that has affected all of us — for me, it’s easy.

R.N.: We are so lucky to have a champion like Heidi. Not everyone who gets a leadership position on a board cares about the work the way she does. We benefit from her vast knowledge of the industry, but also her strategic mind.

WWD: What makes you most proud of the work you’ve done with C+C?

H.M.: When we sit down at a conference or panel and are spoken about as a thought leader in this space — that is the greatest source of pride, because you’re making a difference. I don’t know if there could be any more proud moment than that.

R.N.: For me, it’s the fact that there is an individual person who’s been diagnosed with cancer and we’re available to them immediately for guidance. Making a difference to an individual person is what gets me out of bed every day and I’m proud to work on a team that is as passionate about it as I am, and that helps bring it to life every day whether they’re creating a piece of content, speaking to a person on the phone or representing the organization in public.