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Women In Wellness: “Why You Should Have Kudos Folder” with Rebecca V. Nellis of Cancer and Careers

Have a kudos folder, so when you’ve had a bad day or feel like you aren’t getting anywhere or people are jerks you can look at a reminder of something you did that meant something to someone else — could be personal or professional. As part of my series about health and wellness leaders, I had the […]

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Have a kudos folder, so when you’ve had a bad day or feel like you aren’t getting anywhere or people are jerks you can look at a reminder of something you did that meant something to someone else — could be personal or professional.

As part of my series about health and wellness leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca V. Nellis. Rebecca is the Executive Director of Cancer and Careers. Since 2004 she has helped evolve the organization from early concept to national prominence. Rebecca oversees CAC’s programming and fundraising strategies to ensure long-term growth and sustainability. Under her leadership, the organization’s services transform the everyday lives of survivors, while promoting lasting, systemic change for tomorrow’s workplace. Featured in The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Women’s Health and on the TODAY show, Rebecca Nellis is a subject matter expert on cancer-workplace issues. She travels the country presenting at national conferences, leading hospitals and community events about the intersection of life, work and cancer. Rebecca holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from New York University and a Master of Public Policy degree from Georgetown University.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I am a Chicagoan who refuses to call herself a New Yorker despite having lived in NYC for more than 20 years. I studied theatre at an arts high school, Steppenwolf and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I have traveled to more than 40 countries (42 to be exact). I am a nonprofit professional, who first worked for arts organizations and then 15 and half years ago took a part-time, temporary, maternity leave cover job at a 3-year-old organization called Cancer and Careers. I am now the Executive Director.

Can you share the interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

The fact that my background in the arts, and theatre specifically, equipped me the most for professional work. Thinking about your audience and delivering what they need in a way that is meaningful to them, being able to come up with creative solutions or workarounds, making something when you have limited resources, thriving on collaboration and being part of a team — these are all things that get cultivated when you are making theatre. People in business (be it for profit or not-for-profit) are always looking for innovation and disruption, I think artists have been doing that for all time. So, learning to lean into the things I learned as an artist and apply them to my work life was pivotal.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

This question immediately made me think of when I was an intern at Mercury Records in the PR department. At 19, it was my first office experience of any kind even though the internship mostly entailed putting together press packets. One day, the other intern was out and the PR team was having a big meeting and I was given the sole responsibility of answering the phone. I was told under no circumstances should I interrupt this meeting, just take messages. At one point the phone rang and the person asks for the head of the department and I let him know she isn’t available right now but I can take a message. When he says, “it’s Jon Bon Jovi”, I say “Oh. Would you mind holding on for a moment?” So now, I have put JON BON JOVI on hold, and I have to decide whether not interrupting includes this scenario that I hadn’t been prepped for. Ultimately, I decide to interrupt the meeting (and my memory of this moment is more vivid than things that happened yesterday). When I appear in the doorway, I get a look that says, “are you too stupid to follow simple directions” and a blunt “what?” It at this moment that this could have been a huge mistake… I say, I have Jon Bon Jovi on hold… and the head of the department clears the room and takes the call. While in the end, it wasn’t a mistake, it was memorable for being my first moment of decision making in a professional environment and my first moment of being willing to accept the repercussions of a decision I made. I never forgot it. Sometimes you have to take the risk, listen to your gut, you might be wrong but at least you’ll be able to live with yourself.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

With our 20th anniversary approaching (which is very exciting for a small niche organization like ours), we are working on a new strategic plan which is such an important opportunity to reflect and take the time to gather feedback from stakeholders and to think about where to go next. Everything is being considered — from expanding our programs beyond the cancer community and addressing other serious medical conditions and thinking about if there is a role we can play as advocates in the policy arena to how we further equip companies to meet their business goals while supporting their employees diagnosed with cancer effectively and compassionately — there is no shortage of things we can work on. It’s all about prioritizing the needs and maximizing our resources. We are also actively working to build our board of directors to ensure the long-term stability of the organization. That’s a shift from the mentality of a start-up organization thinking about year-to-year frameworks to assuming longevity and needing to build on our foundation to support ourselves as an institution.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

It is so hard to narrow that down to just one. Certainly Carlotta Jacobson, President of CEW, who founded Cancer and Careers has been a huge force in my professional life. She saw something in me when I was just a part-time temporary maternity leave cover. She listened to her gut and created a permanent place for me and she has been a champion ever since — challenging me to continue to think bigger for myself and for the organization. Her influence and support can’t be overstated. My mom has also had a significant influence in my life and career. She marched to the beat of her own drum, made bold choices and thrived professionally and personally. She encouraged curiosity, exploration and authenticity which profoundly impacted my assumptions that I could define my own path, no matter how straight or curvy it was.

Can you share your top three “lifestyle tweaks” that will help people feel great?

Have a kudos folder, so when you’ve had a bad day or feel like you aren’t getting anywhere or people are jerks you can look at a reminder of something you did that meant something to someone else — could be personal or professional.

Squeeze walking into your workday, whether it is 15 minutes at lunch or the ability to walk to or from work (or both) that time of shaking yourself out of the work environment is invaluable. But get off your phone, it won’t have the same impact if you are still emailing or taking calls. Honestly, if you can do it without headphones that is even better. Just being present in your environment and moving your body makes such a difference in your daily well-being.

More sleep. This is the one I have not yet achieved but strive for and know it would be game changing. Constant connection, 24-hour news, workdays that don’t really end, I can’t change any of that but I do feel like I could change how much sleep I get.

Is there a particular book that made an impact on you? Can you share a story?

Honestly, while I have voraciously read a lot of non-fiction, memoirs and histories, what immediately came to mind is The Portable Dorothy Parker. Her wit, sarcasm and ability to express the human condition really shaped me as a young person. Her ability to be razor sharp and succinct, taught me a lot about the value in communicating to the point for the greatest impact.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

For everyone to be treated fairly in all aspects of their lives. There are so many equity issues in the world, some more visible than others. While many people are already working towards this by focusing on different facets of social justice (including myself since Cancer and Careers works every day to address the inherent unfairness that people diagnosed with cancer often face in the workplace), I think if we could have a colossal shift towards things being more just for everyone, that would bring wellness to a much greater number of people.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have had the privilege of helping to bring national attention to a very specific, niche issue. On the micro level it has allowed me to validate the experiences real people are having every day and help them take their next step forward. On the macro level it has allowed me to bring my passion for this issue to audiences all over the country — from the unexpected venues like a session at South by Southwest to communities in Anchorage and Bismarck, where we meet patients, survivors and healthcare providers face-to-face. Over the last two years, we have conducted research and used the expertise CAC has developed in the US to create a brand-new toolkit for people living in Europe. The reality is more than 70% of cancer diagnoses are made in adults between the ages of 20 and 74, i.e. “prime employment years” so any success getting this issue into the larger public consciousness has been for the singular goal of helping more people find a way to balance their lives, work and a cancer diagnosis.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

There is politics in everything — in small organizations, the cancer community, the nonprofit industry, everywhere. Try to rise above it.

Saying no is okay, and more often than you think the right course of action.

There are unkind people in every corner of life, including in spaces where you are trying to help or make a difference. Don’t focus on their negativity.

You aren’t carrying the life-saving serum, so try and remember that work will still be there tomorrow. To avoid burnout, it’s essential to figure out your boundaries and create the best work-life balance possible.

Setbacks and professional roadblocks are inevitable, but not permanent. Persistence, determination and a guiding vision will be instrumental in moving past them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

Decades ago, in one of my Chandler’s assignment notebooks from school, there was an anonymous quote — “experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” While it might sound a little negative, it always stayed with me. I think it really influenced me more than I realized, someone asked me for career advice a few years ago and my response was to follow the curves, it might not make sense in the moment but when you look back at the winding road, you’ll be able to see how it all comes together.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

There are so many people doing interesting work in the world, it is hard to choose. Who wouldn’t want to have a meal with Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Melinda Gates or Jacinda Ardern? Or, maybe more specific to me, Ezra Klein or Bozoma Saint John or Mary Zimmerman.After I read the Times profile earlier this year, I think sitting down with Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, would be fascinating. I have always wished I could spend my time being an eccentric anonymous philanthropist and while I am not saying he is eccentric or the Ford Foundation is anonymous, he spends his time thinking about society’s most intractable problems and runs an organization that has the means to support the work being done on their solutions. And, at the same time, he is so plugged in to New York City — a place I have called home since 1995 — that I think discussing the city’s equity issues and where he sees opportunity for meaningful change would be incredible and easily fill a breakfast.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Readers can follow me and Cancer and Careers on social media!

· Facebook: Cancer and Careers

· Twitter: @rebeccanellis & @cancerandcareer

· Instagram: Cancer and Careers

· LinkedIn: Rebecca Nellis & Cancer and Careers

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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