Brooklyn woman fired after cancer diagnosis recovers with nonprofit’s help

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

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A diagnosis of cancer is distressing enough. But losing your job afterwards? That’s doubly devastating.

That’s just what happened to Tara Cernacek, 44, who was finishing treatment for her Stage II breast cancer when she was let go from her job as an executive assistant at a nonprofit.

“I was told that the company was restructured, but I do believe I was picked first for being a liability with the cancer,” the Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, resident said.

Left with few options, Cernacek turned to Cancer and Careers, a nationwide nonprofit that has helped nearly 300,000 people who have been laid off in the wake of a cancer diagnosis get back on their feet.

Its website is a hub of information for patients looking to beef up their career skills.

Topics include résumé writing, interviewing tactics and how to handle discrimination in the workplace.

“The first thing people ask you when you meet them is, ‘What do you do?’ It’s been hard on my self-esteem,” Cernacek said.

“But I just keep trying to find something, and trying to remind myself I’m not the only person in this situation,” she said.

Though Cernacek is still holding out for a permanent position in nonprofit work, the organization has helped her find five administrative temp jobs.

Her husband works, so she is able to manage off of his income. But the couple has spent their savings.

Legally, companies that are bound by the Americans with Disabilities Act may not discriminate against people with a health issue, but it’s often difficult to prove that such discrimination happened even if all the factors add up, experts say.

Cernacek was never able to provide a “smoking gun memo or voicemail,” said Rebecca Nellis, the vice president of programs and strategy at Cancer and Careers, meaning that it would be hard to prove her termination was illness-related.

“For many survivors, the time and cost and emotional toll of considering legal action if there isn’t something blatant is outweighed by the desire to move forward,” she said.

And move forward is what Cernacek did.

She started with data entry from home while she grew back her hair and strengthened her interview skills.

Cancer and Careers taught her how to deflect questioning about her diagnosis to instead highlight the results she’s achieved in her various roles.

The goal, Nellis said, is to adequately prepare survivors so that they can “be savvy candidates — not cancer survivor candidates, but candidates.”