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Balancing Cancer and Your Career as a Young Adult

by Rebecca V. Nellis, MPP

Photo by Cancer Type

No matter your age at diag­nosis, you’ll likely feel the impact of cancer in every corner of your life. However, for young adults, cancer poses unique challenges, especially when it comes to employment. Perhaps you had just begun the job hunt, or maybe you recently landed the posi­tion you were vying for or were starting to establish yourself professionally, finally feeling secure in your career path, when cancer hit. And now you’re left wondering what your next move should be. Will you need to take some time off or work fewer hours, or will you be able to maintain your current work schedule?

Determining Your Best Path Forward
The first step to figuring out what comes next is to think about where you are in your career, where you are in your can­cer journey, and what role your job plays in your life.

Next, you’ll need to do some fact finding. Talk with your healthcare team to ensure that you not only understand your diagnosis and treatment plan but also know how all of it could affect your work. Find out how much time off you should anticipate for surgery or treatment, discuss how treatment-related side effects might affect your job performance, and come up with solutions to help mitigate any issues they may cause.

Author of Article photo

Rebecca Nellis

Finally, find out what policies and benefits your employer already has in place for you. This information is often located in your employee handbook or your hiring paperwork. You’ll need to research what legal protections you’re entitled to as well. (Both federal and state laws may apply.)

Clinching Control with “the Swivel”
Regardless of whether you choose to continue working full time, decrease your workload, or take a medical leave, if your company is aware of your can­cer diagnosis, you may be concerned that the disease will dominate your interactions with coworkers. One way to regain control of your work identity is to learn how to constructively refocus conversations to a more productive topic. This technique is called “the swivel.”

Here’s how it works. If a coworker says, “My uncle had cancer too,” re­spond by validating the comment, and then swivel the conversation away from cancer and toward something work related. For instance, you could say, “Thank you for sharing that. It must have been hard for your family. Do you have time this week to go over our upcoming meeting?” By continuously steering conversations away from cancer and back toward work, you’ll reinforce how you want your colleagues to see you – as a coworker, not a cancer patient.

The swivel technique also comes in handy during job interviews. Although it’s illegal for employers to ask specifics about your health, an interviewer may inquire about a gap in your education or employment history. Go ahead and think about how you will answer these types of questions in advance. Be brief, speak in general terms, and talk more about the future than the past. The key to the swivel is to not leave an opening for the interviewer to dig further into the gap. Instead, you want to nudge them to pick up the conversation from where you have swiveled it.

Moving Past Your Worries
Along with concerns about your current or future employment, you may also be struggling with the idea of being left behind while your peers move for­ward, being a burden to your parents, or never having an identity that isn’t cancer-related. The best way to start moving past these worries is to begin a conversation – with your­self, your employer, your healthcare team, your family – so that whether you work during cancer treatment, take time off, or look for new opportunities, you’ll be empowered to take charge of your career, as well as your life.

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Rebecca Nellis is the chief mission officer for Cancer and Careers, a national nonprofit organization addressing the intersection of work and cancer. For more information, tools, and programs, visit

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2015.