Careers Beyond Cancer – A Virtual Churchill Journey


Lois Keay-Smith is a Masters qualified career counsellor, meaningful life-work coach and career transition coach. She is the founder of Career Wisdom, a career consultancy that has been operating for almost 17 years in Perth. 

As career practitioners we come across many different clients, some with challenging life situations that they are navigating. It is our privilege to assist them in finding their way in their career whilst being mindful of the context. Working with adults who are survivors of cancer is an emerging area for career practitioners to contribute. 

It was a joy (at times there was heartache too) working with young people with a cancer diagnosis, for Redkite eight years ago, as a Career and Education Consultant. This role still exists but has since been taken on by Canteen around Australia. When starting in the role, I learned more about cancer, the impact on the person’s life, the disruption of work/study and career plans as well as the effects of both cancer and treatments on the human body. Working as an informal ‘adjunct’ with the hospital’s multi-disciplinary team for youth cancer provided a great insight into how valued the role of a career practitioner is in that setting. 

In 2019, I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship and intended to travel to the USA, Canada and UK to investigate adult career services for cancer patients and survivors.  Surprisingly perhaps, there were no dedicated services beyond those for youth. Due to COVID, I later made the decision to undertake the Fellowship via virtual means with the support of the Winston Churchill Trust. 

It was wonderful to meet people around the world and learn from their experiences.  I was struck by the common bond of wanting to assist people in their career beyond cancer, as well as the diversity of backgrounds of those who provided this assistance, from HR to Vocational Rehabilitation specialists and job/career coaches (none were career practitioners). Many services focussed primarily on return to work and employment relationship aspects. 

For many patients and survivors, a return to work even if welcomed involves a transition that can be varied and rely on a flexible employer or clients to make it work best for both parties. Some unfortunately, find that the effects of cancer and treatment now make their work untenable both physically or mentally (‘chemo brain’ and fatigue are often cited), and they wish to explore something new. 

There are also those who may have stepped back from working or been displaced during their treatment or had been looking for work at the time of diagnosis. There can be challenges faced in taking time away for treatment and then addressing the resume gap with prospective employers. Those who were unhappy or dissatisfied with their work life prior to their diagnosis, or now having faced their mortality, may decide that they want to do something different, or more meaningful. 

The notion of thriving compels some survivors to choose a new direction. Certainly, there are aspects of the cancer experience that enable certain strengths to be realised and new skills developed. Others desire to give back (often to cancer organisations who have supported them) or re-engage or take up new interests that are recognised now as important to prioritise. 

In the investigations of services overseas there was a fair degree of diversity in the organisational structure or status as well as the depth and breadth of services and resources offered. Some provided a large volume of free resources without personalised 1:1 support while others provided psycho-social support with less emphasis on career development but with referral pathways in place. 

Many hours were spent with my laptop and headphones in the wee hours of the morning participating in the USA Cancer and Careers conference and viewing other webinars, seminars and content. During this time, I received a melanoma diagnosis, which provided some additional insights(!) as I underwent treatment and became personally acquainted with patient information and advocacy. 

From my investigations, I now look towards implementing some strategies that flow from the findings in my report, relating to developing resources and assistance for cancer survivors. These include:

  1. Advocacy - linking and partnering with charities, building the profession, and promoting the value of services to medical professionals and patient support groups.
  2. Relationships - developing partnerships with potential referral partners, with non-profits, global links, and exploring multidisciplinary discussion and collaboration.
  3. Development / Services - considering hybrid model of services, harnessing technology, developing resources, with a focus on career change and life-work reinvention.
  4. Sustainability - Securing sustainable means of updating resources and service continuity.

My hope is that our profession can make an impact in this important area and that career practitioners become a mainstream inclusion in the holistic care of survivors, beyond cancer treatment.

Key resources:

If you would like to find out more about Churchill Fellowships, please click here.

Please contact me [email protected] or via LinkedIn, if you have lived experience of cancer as a survivor or carer and would like to express your interest in working with adult cancer survivors and/or reviewing resources.