Rebecca Nellis is the chief mission officer for Cancer and Careers in New York City. Since 2004 she has helped evolve the organization from early concept to national prominence. She now oversees all mission-driven initiatives, including the long-term strategy and growth of its many programs and services. As an expert on cancer workplace issues, she travels the country speaking at national cancer conferences and community events about the intersection of life, work and cancer. She also was a co-founder of and director at Collective Hole Productions, an independent theater company in New York City. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from New York University and a Master of Public Policy degree from Georgetown University.
Would I be right in thinking, based on your Master of Public Policy degree, that you knew early on what sort of work you wanted to do?
Actually, no. The MPP degree happened relatively recently because I felt I wanted to add to my arsenal and go back to a space where I would be challenged to think and do things that don’t come naturally to me. I didn’t want to leave my job so I did both at the same time, which was mildly insane.
But I always had an interest in the not-for-profit world, being mission-driven. However, my first love was the theater. I studied theater at NYU as an under-graduate. I think it equipped me for all sorts of things that are unexpected in the work world.
Then I bounced around for a while. I would work for a while and then travel for three months at a time. And then I answered an ad for a part-time, maternity-leave cover position at Cancer and Careers 11 years ago.
I was doing a couple of other things at that time. I was working part-time at a dance foundation; I was teaching a children’s theater class; I was taking a graduate history class. And I took the [Cancer and Careers] job because it was going to round out paying my rent for the six months that those things were all happening simultaneously.
Then it turned into the current version of my life’s work. It was an accident that turned out great.
But you didn’t leave the theater behind, did you?
It’s been a few years now but I actually started a small theater company in 2006 with a collaborator. We did four shows in five years and then I went to graduate school. So something had to give. It wasn’t possible to do the theater company, do my job and go to school [simultaneously].
Can you tell me about Cancer and Careers’ mission and about your role there?
Cancer and Careers was founded 14 years ago, so I’ve been here for all but three of its years. It’s the only program of the Cosmetic Executive Women [CEW] Foundation. The Foundation is the philanthropic arm of CEW Inc., a trade organization in the beauty industry that turned 60 last year. Over time they decided that philanthropy was part of their mission to develop women leaders in the industry. Before Cancer and Careers was started, CEW Foundation was a grant-making organization. It did an annual event and donated the proceeds to women-related non-profits in the New York City area.
But around 2000 five CEW Inc. board members were diagnosed with cancer at the same time. They all turned to the president because these were women who broke glass ceilings and excelled in an industry geared toward women but not traditionally run by women. They didn’t want to give up the work they did but the couldn’t find any information about the work piece [of cancer treatment]. They had access to medical information, of course, but where was the work dialog in the cancer experience?
It was a light bulb moment for Carlotta Jacobson who was (and still is) president of CEW Inc. She felt the mission of the foundation could be to address that question of what happens to your work when cancer comes into your life. From there she hired our executive director, Kate Sweeney, and together they imagined a website written with a consumer magazine voice for working women with cancer.
So it addressed questions like what to share and how to develop an action plan. The website launched in 2001 along with the program. When I was hired I was the third staff member and, again, it wasn’t supposed to be permanent.
There was a funny moment during my second interview for the job when the person interviewing me and I agreed that they had no interest in having me beyond six months and I had no interest in staying longer than six months. It’s funny what the universe decides for you.
How has the organization evolved since you joined?
We listened to our audience and we got smarter. We built our own expertise over time so the program has gone from an information resource that was mostly static, on the web or in publications, to a more dynamic website with tools like “Career Coaching.” We also have a wide range of in-person events and programs. We’ve changed some things over time and eliminated some things we felt weren’t effective.
We’ve tried to raise the issue of work and cancer into the public consciousness and the lexicon of things you might want to think about. Honestly, a diagnosis brings not only a mortality crisis but also an identity one for many people. Work is so closely aligned with who we are and how we learn about and judge each other that there is all this rich, emotional, psychological stuff happening as well as super practical problems that arise when you’re trying to figure what to do about work or get back into the work world.
Do you find there’s often a great deal of fear to be overcome?
Absolutely. And other people’s fears in addition to your own.
Another part of the evolution is that we became gender-neutral as we decided we sat in a special place where we had a niche topic. We weren’t doing our audience any favors by segregating them. The under-served population we were addressing were people who were trying to work, not a gender.
We also knew anecdotally that men had been using our resources for ages and ignoring the pronouns. But it was smart on a number of levels. It was a process because the core came right out of CEW and out of working women facing the issues.
Now we have an eight-person [Cancer and Careers] team that will grow to 11 by the end of the year so we have a lot more hands than we once did, but we’ve been lucky to be nimble. We’ve been able to take opportunities and make decisions in real time that enhance the organization in ways that being bigger probably would make harder.
One group we serve intensely is healthcare professionals because they’re going to touch more lives than we ever will. We have accredited programs for them and have continued to grow how we serve that group.
What’s the first hurdle that usually needs to be overcome? Is it “Will I be able to keep my job?”
I would say that for the people currently employed it’s “Do I tell?” and “Will I get fired?” For the people trying to get back into the workplace, it’s “Will my cancer mean I’ll never get a job?” or “Will the gap on my résumé mean I’ll never get a job?” “Will this mean I’ll never be on a level playing field with my peers?”
The most common question we hear from job seekers is how to explain the gap in their résumé and whether they should explain it by talking about their cancer experience.
Is there a pat answer to that?
I’m going to use my “if I was a lawyer” answer and say it depends. In real terms, particularly in an interview, an employer can’t ask you anything about a health issue. It comes down to the person. There are plenty of survivors who just can’t imagine not articulating it as part of their life. But you can’t know what the person on the side of the table brings to the conversation, so typically we tell people to think it through and decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not to talk about it.
We offer techniques and tools to think about in advance of going into an interview or writing a cover letter that will help you just be a savvy candidate instead of a savvy cancer-survivor candidate. I would never tell a person who can’t imagine not sharing the information to go against who they are. I might suggest they wait until a certain point in the interview process.
It’s a bit like dating: In your online profile you don’t necessarily share all your annoying habits. You’re waiting for the marriage proposal before you share some of the more complicated things about you. There’s a sense in this community that they’re responsible for sharing more than other people feel they need to. People don’t go into job interviews and share that they’re diabetic or that they have a heart condition. I just typically don’t think the resume or the cover letter is the place to share because you have no opportunity to show someone how alive and talented and gifted you are.
Do you think getting back into the workplace is harder for women than men?
In many ways it’s similar and in a couple of ways it’s different. I don’t know that it’s harder or easier for either but there are examples of men who feel that by virtue of being a male and of [stereotypical] “manness” that they are in a vulnerable place and that makes it harder for them.
But we’ve worked with women who feel that way as well. The cancers that are most common and most talked about are different in relation to men and women. Breast cancer has been demystified and is not sexual any more. But I don’t imagine many men are excited about going to work and talking about testicular cancer. People are different as are work places and cancers.
Men and women get their information differently. We have way, way more women at events and discussions than men. Who’s reading the website? It’s hard to say but I’m sure it’s much less skewed.
It must be both rewarding and draining to be dealing with people who find themselves in crisis and in fear. What’s your experience?
It’s almost entirely rewarding and I feel that in some way I’m just a tiny cog in the wheel, trying to make the world just a little bit better.
I’ve always cared about unfairness. I never understood it; it was a real issue for me. As a kid, I didn’t understand racism, how you could look at someone and only see the differences. So this issue resonates with me. Why should someone be seen as diminished because they’ve gone through or are going through [a battle with cancer]? It’s unfair and it’s a driver for me.
What’s emotionally draining is when you find yourself in your non-work life talking about your work life and someone takes that opportunity, when you aren’t expecting it, to tell you their whole story. That’s hard because then there are no lines. I would never ‘not listen’ but it changes that experience.
Certainly there are hard, hard, hard stories to hear. But there also are incredible ones. I get to see the best in people.
Were you raised in family that nurtured that antipathy to unfairness and your desire to make the world better?
I’m sure that there’s some truth to that. I definitely grew up in a household that believed the streets are for the people. That’s a direct quote from my mother. And that belief we all share in the world we live in.
There was a sense of giving back, though not always in a formalized way. But that was there.
I went to an arts high school so I had a very different high school experience. I was surrounded by people being driven by their passions and being allowed to have them at a young age when people often are told “You don’t know what you want.”
I think that has something to do with it, too.
What have learned in your work at Cancer and Careers that has helped you in your non-work hours?
I think that I know life is short and that spending it doing things that don’t contribute to your overall wellbeing, whatever that might be, is wasted time. I’m not always good at that, but I know that.
When I’m making a mountain out of a molehill in my non-work life, I remind myself what a real mountain looks like and try to put it in check. I think I handle irritating moments differently now because life is short.
Is it difficult for you to see others make something of nothing, when as you say, you see real troubles?
No. I think that in general, you meet people where they are. I once had a friend tell me, “I’m allowed to have a personal tsunami. I don’t have to couch it in ‘I know things are worse for people in many other circumstances.’ It is still OK if something bad happens or is upsetting me.” I periodically allow myself that space, too. It doesn’t mean you’re not experiencing others’ pain.
Is your work with theater a completely different kind of personal reward? Or does it come from the same place in you as your non-profit work?
Some of it comes from the same place. One of the reasons this became my home for so long is that it is really about knowing an audience and how to serve them. That’s very much what directing plays is about. Knowing who is experiencing it is part of the creative process. Anyone who doesn’t say that is forgetting a very important player in the mix.
So in that sense it satisfies in a similar way. But I have far fewer words to describe the theater piece. I love working with actors to figure out what the story is. I love the idea that we’re then going to tell a story that is going to be a collective experience for the audience. So there are elements in that that are true to my work at Cancer and Careers, but there is also something intangible when something just happens in a rehearsal.
Are you able to find time for theater work now?
Not now. It takes a tremendous amount of work to create the space to be able to do it. New York’s a hard town. The years I was running the theater company either with someone or, for the last year and a half or so, on my own, it was a matter of raising enough money to get a production off the ground just so I could be in that rehearsal room for six weeks.
I like the accomplishment of that, but it’s a hard road. After grad school I had a friend who told me that he expected me to go through a little bit of what he called detox and then there would be space again for the theater. It’s taken longer than I thought it would but it’s still probably true.
Do you think you’ll still be with Cancer and Careers in another five years?
That’s hard to say, especially because no one knows what will happen tomorrow. But I can’t imagine leaving. The circumstances around leaving would have to be pretty spectacular or specific.
I haven’t looked for a job in 11 years. I truly haven’t given it a second thought. When grad school came into my mind it wasn’t about wanting to leave but to grow in another way. Finding a way to do that—by taking my job with me to Georgetown—was important to me.
We’re not done yet! There are so many things I can see for us to do. We’re still doing such cool stuff.
Do you shake your head that it was such a bit of serendipity that you found it?
Completely. I tell people “Follow the curves.” Everything doesn’t have to make sense in the moment. It can all make sense later. So much of where I learned things—like in the theater or in international travel with a backpack—has filtered into why I can do this job. The curves are good!