Strategizing for a job interview when you have cancer
Posted Jun 23 2009 6:50pm
I'm taking a mini-break from my endless bar prep, to stress for tomorrow's upcoming event. A job interview.
I feel like this is one of the biggest areas where young adult cancer survivors are more or less totally screwed. My doctor never gave me any advice or pamphlets on how to handle getting your first real job. There are discrimination laws and things, but really, from a practical standpoint how much do they really help?
From a rational employer's perspective, I wouldn't want to hire someone with cancer. Especially someone still getting treatments, or with positive cancer markers. I wouldn't want an employee who needed to take off every few months for tests; who has a consistent history of having to have surgeries and radiation. They may be great candidates, but really... why would I want to hire someone like that? And even more so, why hire someone like that who is just starting out? Who has no real experience? I mean, back in the day people w/ disabilities did great things all the time, in today's world, do you really think FDR in his wheelchair could be president, or Churchill and his alcoholism?
So this is the laundry list of things I've replayed a dozen or so million times in my head when it comes to interviews.
1. Do I hide the fact I have cancer, simply neglect to point it out, or sort of throw it right up front in the lime light?
I throw it right on my resume. Granted its at the bottom, and it's subtle, but I write on there that I am a member of Thyca: the Thyroid Cancer Survivor Association. I do this for a handful of reasons, but mainly b/c I've decided, if an employer looks at that and decides not to hire me, well then I don't really want to work for them anyways. For the others, I look to use it as a talking point in interviews. Let me tell you about how I've been fighting cancer while at the same time completing both law and grad school at the same time.
I've found, a lot more people are touched by thyroid cancer than you would think. Or it can be a way to relate to people. If I can turn it into a strength and not a weakness.
2. I can't hide my scar
I have about a 6 inch scare that runs across the center of my neck. Most people don't notice b/c its so big. I find interviewers are judging you in every way, especially how you look and present yourself. I've had one person look at my resume and then tell me they see my scar. It threw me off, and it sort of shook me up. I think I can deal with that now. Human curiosity looks for these things.
3. I have gaps and hiccups in my resume
For all of the awesome things that I have done while dealing with cancer, the unfortunate fact is, being sick has had it's costs as far as my professional life goes. 1st thing that a prospective employer will notice is that my GPA is low. My first year of law school, I was in and out of testing, had 2 surgeries, recurrance, a paralyzed vocal cord, and started hypo hell during finals. If i could have, I would have taken the year off. I get so angry at myself when I blame cancer for my grades; but since first year i believe i've pulled a 3.7 GPA between the two schools. So about a 3.5, 3.6 in law school. I have no idea how to tell that to someone. I did once, during an interview for a research assistant position, but I was comfortable with him, and everyone in law school talks. But he asked me how on earth I could get a 2.4 one year and then the next semester a 3.9.
2nd thing they notice, is that on my list of activities, I was never on a legal journal. In case you haven't noticed already, I like to write. I'm confident enough to say that I'm pretty good at it. And I love doing research. If you don't make it onto a journal your first year via your grades, then you are able to write-on at the end of each year. Well... first year=neck dissection, second= low iodine diet/radiation, third= dossimetry. This is the first spring where I didn't go into finals either going hypo, or pumped full of thyrogen. So, sitting and writing under those conditions. I could have done it. Maybe I was just lazy. At least thats how it looks on a resume.
3rd thing they notice is that I didn't work the summer after my first year. Again, neck dissection and radiation. I was out. I don't remember that summer. It still totally freaks me out.
And 4th, I didn't work at a firm. I chose far more awesome, less practical jobs. And I went where they offered me money too. I worked in Cambodia and Germany. Anyone can work in a firm; I actually like living my life.
4. So you're in remission, right?
This question blows. It's automatically assumed if I've got hair, 2 degrees, and am in an interview, clearly I must be in remission. Nevermind, that technically, they can't ask me that. Not legally, but what lawyers ever pay attention to that. I mention the hair thing b/c its assumed that cancer=chemo=no hair, remission=hair. But my irritation isn't why I dislike the question. The answer is.
I'm not exactly in remission. I'm in freak limbo. I don't want to lie. I don't want to go into the long drawn out explanation of why it doesn't matter. What it comes down to is that they want to know if I'm functional enough to work. Which I am. No matter what their preconceived notion of what having cancer means. But its also true I'll need time off to do testing. I'm not in the clear, technically. Most jobs you can glaze over this fact. I of course want to work for the government, or other physically demanding jobs, that require background checks and medical reports. *If you are someone performing a check on me, I am perfectly functional for working in any condition... my doctor said so!
So on top of the normal stress of graduating and trying to find my first job; trying to find a job in one of the worst economic crisis to hit the US in a while; the first to hit the lawyer job market; and not to mention just normal interview jitters, I'm consumed by trying to figure out how to give explanations about my past, and be convincing that I don't really have issues that would be detrimental in the future. I feel like it requires a certain level of self confidence and certainty that I'm afraid I just haven't been feeling lately.
Oh, and I could really, really, really, use something big to go my way right now.