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The Question

I was laid off from my job and, several weeks later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a long course of treatment and have not worked for two years. I am now looking for a job. How do I explain the two-year gap on my résumé? What do I say in a job interview? Do I have to tell a potential employer that I had cancer? I am in great health now and would rather not have to reveal the cancer if I can help it.

The Answer

Glad to hear you are in great health and ready to get back in the game. I'm sure many of the questions you asked are shared by others who have been in similar situations.

Let's start with: "Do I have to tell a potential employer that I had cancer?" The quick answer is no. Legally, you are not obliged to disclose any level of detail. However, the issue is less about what you are obliged to disclose and more about what you need to convey to give yourself the best chance at getting hired. Of course, the answer to this may vary depending on the context of the job, the company, and the person conducting the interview.

According to recruiters, it has become more common for people to take time off for various personal reasons, so a gap in your résumé shouldn't be a deal breaker if the rest of your experience shows enough alignment with the employment opportunity. Instead of disclosing the particulars in your résumé, you might want to simply acknowledge that period as a "personal sabbatical" from your career and be prepared to address this further in the interview stage.

Interview preparation is important. You need to determine in advance how you will address this gap when asked at the actual interview stage.

Less gets people guessing

While it is up to you how much to disclose, here's a word of caution: Being too vague about your gap (or "sabbatical") in an interview can backfire. Where there is mystery, there is room for speculation. While an employer is not legally allowed to probe, their private theories can actually end up being worse than what you are trying to hide. It's better if you own your story, which means you might need to convey some detail to credibly mitigate speculation. That doesn't mean you have to divulge the specifics, just enough to elicit confidence in where you are now – healthy, ready and able to work.

If you are reluctant to disclose that you had breast cancer, then you might speak generally about having had a personal health issue that you chose to deal with before getting back to the workforce.

Julie Labrie, president of BlueSky Personnel Solutions and another 'Ask an Expert' contributor to Globe Careers, agrees with this approach. "It's better to confidently state up front that you had a health matter that needed your undivided attention and reinforce that you have fully dealt with it and are now ready to work rather than trying to hide it and creating more doubt and confusion," Ms. Labrie advises.

For anyone who might suggest it is better to embellish your time off with fictitious adventures and personal development pursuits, I'd caution against that and so does Janine Turner, a vice-president with Mandrake, a recruiting firm. Lying is never a good strategy. It's important to be honest but strategic in what you share.

Acknowledge, then move on

Your health must not become the primary focus of the interview. After acknowledging the reason for your time off, you should immediately transition to conversation that is more directly related to the job and your abilities. Ask questions about the role; share your reasons for your interest in the role; talk about your relevant experiences, strengths and assets.

Exceptions to the Rule

There may be a valid reason to consider disclosing more detail about a past health concern – that you are a breast cancer survivor.

One obvious example would be if the organization has a mandate or special interest in supporting cancer- or other health-related causes. Another is what I'll refer to as the "silver lining" effect. That's when one comes out of a crisis in some way better – perhaps more resilient, more focused and/or with new personal skills and/or perspective that will be pertinent to the role and valuable to the organization. If you feel this is the case, then consider what might be worth speaking about. Of course, you should only do this if it is authentic to you and relevant to the job opportunity.

Ultimately – what level of detail you choose to share or omit will be a personal decision and a judgment call based on the particulars of the job and interview process. The most important principles are to: ensure you come across as authentic and aren't hiding something that would concern an employer; focus on conveying your readiness, abilities, relevant experience and the value you can bring to the role; and finally, invest time in preparing so that you can confidently put your best foot forward.

To your health and career success.

Eileen Chadnick is a work-life and career coach and principal of Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto.

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