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On the Job Hunt after Cancer

How to Handle a Resume Gap


Knowledge image

Explaining away the gap in work history is one of the most common worries of cancer sur­vivors looking for work. But there is some good news for those facing this challenge today. Because of the ongoing sluggishness of the economy, more and more people have substantial gaps in their resumes. Of course, a down job market isn’t easy to negotiate, but those hiring are not as likely to automatically discount you because of a work gap.

But prejudice still exists. In fact, some state legislatures are moving to ban job ads that discriminate against people who aren’t currently employed.

We know that the gap is weighing heavily on your mind, but experts ad­vise that you don’t address the gap in your cover letter – instead focus on why you are great for that position right now. It’s also important to remember that your diagnosis is confidential, and you do not have to disclose your cancer in an application or interview situation.

Dealing with the Gap
There are many strategies for dealing with a re­sume gap:

List your skills first. List all of your career skills at the top of your resume, and underneath each heading include three to six bullet points that summa­rize your core skills. Then at the bottom of your resume, briefly list the compa­nies you’ve worked for, your job titles, and the years of employment. This for­mat is known as the chronological/functional format.

Forgo the calendar. If you’ve been out of the workforce for several years, omit the calendar year and include in­stead the number of years of service. For example, “Two years of managerial work in customer service.”

Highlight non-career achievements. Include your volunteer and community work, and show how they translate into relevant job skills, such as the ability to multitask, plan events, and organize.

Include freelance and part-time work. Treat your freelance work or part-time work as a career builder. You can, and should, lay out the achievements and skills gained as a consultancy position. The recommended practice for all resumes is to cover in detail only 10 to 15 years in a resume. If that means cer­tain skills and experience you want to highlight won’t be included, add them under the heading “Additional Work Experience” or “Additional Skills.”

Handling the Interview
Hiring ex­perts suggest that when you reach the interview stage, you should pick an explanation for the gap that you are comfortable with – and stick with it. The most important thing is that you have a one-sentence response that you’ve internalized and that is believable.

For example, you might list family issues or health issues but state that these are now resolved and leave it at that. Reinforce that you are ready to go back to work full force. Another alter­native is to talk about the gap in terms of reassessing your career path.

It’s important to remember that your diagnosis is confidential, and you do not have to disclose your cancer in an application or interview situation.

Remember, your diagnosis is yours to share. Don’t think of not mentioning your cancer as lying, you are merely excluding information that is private and protected by law.

Of course, if you do mention taking time out for health issues, some hiring personnel will ask you what health is­sues. This question is actually prohibited by law. But you should be prepared to handle it and other awkward moments in the interview.

That’s why you need to practice for your interview. Find a friend or family member whom you are comfortable with and start interviewing, keeping the following in mind:

Anticipate the responses. Lots of people practice for the big question: “Why is there a gap on your resume?” But think further along to the inter­viewer’s response to your answer. What if they ask for specifics or per­haps suggest that you’ve been out of the mix in your field for too long? Have a quick and positive response ready for those tough follow-ups too.

Turn the conversation back to your strengths. When the interviewer suggests a lack in your experience, turn the conversation around by focusing on your skills. Ask the interviewer for an example of a typical challenge, and tell him or her how you’d solve it.

Assess your uncomfortable areas. If you know what you’re insecure about and prepare, that’s more than half the battle. The interview may not even touch on these areas, but you’ll go in with more confidence knowing you have a ready, positive answer.

Remember that you are focusing more on the gap than they are. This is important. Do prepare for difficult questions, but don’t stress yourself by obsessing on the cancer or the gap. The more comfortable you are, the more comfortable they’ll be.

Keep it simple. Stick with your sim­ple sentence. The interviewer doesn’t want a long explanatory discourse – just an answer.

Practice hard for the traditional screening questions. Don’t forget while practicing for your special circumstances to remember regular, albeit annoying, interview questions. “Tell me about yourself.” “What are your strengths?” “What are your areas for development?” “Where do you want to be a few years from now?” “What would your boss say about you?” There is a reason these questions are standard fare – don’t ne­glect the basics.

There may be times when you feel comfortable enough with the inter­viewer that you want to be frank about your cancer history. You could be inter­viewing with someone who’s just gone through a difficult time with a family member who’s been diagnosed with cancer and is therefore empathetic. Only you can judge when or if the time is right. If you feel that you’re at a place where you want to say something, talk about your experience in a way that shows you acquired skills and employ­able characteristics. It’s another way to frame your cancer experience and use it in a manner that might make you stand out compared to others who are interviewing for a job.

Changing Careers
Perhaps your cancer has made you reconsider your employment past and future. Career changing experts recommend that you spend time doing a self-assessment. Open up your mind to options – the federal government publishes a book with a number of different career titles, descriptions, expected earnings, and more (

If you are attempting to change careers, your employment gap can easily be attributed to retraining and retooling. But don’t forget to state in your resume summary that you are aiming to change fields so prospective employers can assess your work his­tory with that in mind. Be prepared on your resume and in an interview to show how skills from your past employment translate to your new chosen field.

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To learn more about returning to work after cancer, and for free informational materials on dealing with cancer in the workplace, visit

Excerpted with permission from Cancer and Careers, copyright © 2012. All rights reserved.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2013.