ALMOST 20 YEARS AFTER MY FIRST DIAGNOSIS of early-stage breast cancer and almost 14 years after my second diagnosis—and double mastectomy—I was blindsided by my diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. It took quite a few months for the fog to clear, but after weeks of tests, doctors’ appointments, and crying nearly every day, I finally decided what I wanted to do—I wanted to continue working.
I know that may sound strange, especially when I could have retired as soon as I was diagnosed, but working is a big part of my identity. I’m an administrative assistant and I take pride in my job. My house may be a mess, but my work is always organized! I do it well, and my coworkers are like a second family to me. But even more than that, when I was diagnosed, trying to keep a normal schedule and getting up for work each day, even when I felt tired, was the only thing I connected with that made me feel like nothing was wrong. I didn’t want to lose any of it, at least not yet.
I’ve come across people who don’t want anyone to know about their diagnosis. For me, I always say, “If I’m going through this, you’re going through it with me!” My boss knew about my doctors’ appointments from the start, and I would talk about my health with my coworkers during our usual water-cooler chit-chat. After I got my diagnosis, I didn’t treat it like a big secret. I sat down with my boss and had a talk about what was ahead of me and that I would need time off from work for appointments, etc. He was very understanding and insisted my health comes first. It was the same with everybody at work. They were all on board with whatever my needs were, too. Many of them wanted to donate their leave to me so I would have enough sick leave! Best of all, my employer allowed me to work from home as long as I needed, and I continue to telework on days that I have appointments or am not feeling well. It’s important to listen to your body. If you need to rest, take a rest.
I feel like the time is approaching to retire. Now that I've had plenty of time to think about it and adjust to my new normal, I am ready to make that choice—not be forced into it."
I’m very lucky that I can do that, I know. Not everyone’s work is like mine, and talking about your diagnosis is a very personal thing. But I really feel like we don’t need more stress on top of everything else. I do whatever I need to do to eliminate stress. For me, having people invested in my situation and ready to support me took a whole weight off my shoulders!
My original plan was to work until age 66 (I’m almost there but not quite). Now, partially because of everyone’s support and understanding, I feel like the time is approaching to retire. Now that I’ve had plenty of time to think about it and adjust to my new normal, I am ready to make that choice—not be forced into it. I’m looking to retire by the end of this summer, almost two years since my diagnosis.
Work fulfilled my needs and identity for years (I’ve been working since I was 16 years old). By continuing to work after my diagnosis, it gave me the time I needed to really think about my health and future and what I wanted to do with it. You need to know when to listen to your body and move forward and when the time is right. With retirement, I won’t have to get up every day at 5:30 and go to work anymore, but I’ve found something new for myself. I thought I knew a lot about breast cancer after my first two diagnoses, but I never knew you can get metastatic breast cancer (MBC) with no breasts. I have since made it a high priority to educate others about metastatic breast cancer. I no longer have to rely on my job because I have other things to look forward to: new goals and things to do. I want to travel and hang out with friends as much as possible, in light of the fact that I am living with MBC—and I finally won’t have an excuse not to clean my house!
I don’t know how long my health will stay, but I am ready to enjoy all the things that I planned on doing in retirement. I want all of you to do whatever you can to enjoy life, too, and take care of yourselves. It is the one time in your life you need to put yourself first and do what’s best for you.
Since writing this post, Patti has chosen to retire.