I will never forget the jumble of emotions that I experienced when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. In a distant way, I knew that I was now facing a life-threatening illness, but foremost in my mind was the immediate practical implications. In addition to dread at the idea of losing my hair, I was devastated at the effect that the diagnosis would have on my career. At the time, I was working towards my next promotion and I felt that I was poised to achieve it. I was ready to work hard that year, be a genius and impress the hell out of my management staff, but cancer completely turned those plans upside down.
Since I was old enough, I have always had a job. Before college, I would do anything…clean horse stalls, work at a pet store, manage a video store, clean houses, or clerk at a law firm…to name a few. After I got my college degree, I immediately launched into a career position in my chosen field. Three years later, I changed career direction and joined with a new company, but I never lost the drive to keep achieving the next level in my career. I was never afraid to make career-altering decisions when the time came to make them. In my most stressful moments, I fantasized about being able to resign and live a simpler life, but I never seriously considered it. My career was the one aspect of my life that was all me. At my job, I wasn’t a mother, a wife, a daughter, etc… I was just me, being judged almost entirely on my own merits. I wasn’t always passionate about the work itself, but I was always passionate about being good at it.
Enter a breast cancer diagnosis. In the early weeks of the diagnosis, I believed that I would go through treatment…probably a year’s worth and then pick up where I left off relative to my life and my career. I was focused on the immediacy of the situation and although I knew intellectually that I could die of the disease, I never really related to that concept. However, once I learned of the late stage of my cancer diagnosis and began to absorb the fact that I could no longer be cured, my perspective finally began to change. My concerns about my career started to seem very trivial when weighed against the fact that I was statistically expected to die within a few years. I needed to shift from being a person who always worked toward the long term plan to one that lived in the moment.
The transition was not easy. My employers were very generous in giving me the support and the time I needed to focus on treatment. By policy, they kept a position open for me for a year. However, they did much more than that…they kept my office open the entire time, gave me constant support and reassurance that my presence was sorely missed, and made sure that I knew that I would come back to open arms should I choose to do so. In the end, however, I did not think it would be possible to continue working full time in light of the physical considerations (side effects and the like) that I was facing with a lifetime of ongoing cancer treatment ahead of me. I also did not think I could manage the stress and mental aspects of my career along with the stress and mental aspects of cancer. I held off on verbalizing the decision until I absolutely had to and the day I officially let go of my career was one of the hardest for me.
So now, I am officially “retired”. I still miss certain aspects of my work life. The people I worked with were very much like a family to me and I miss the daily comradery we had. I also miss the excitement of opportunity…new projects, new responsibilities, new company goals, etc. (I used to think of it as “the hunt”). However…I still keep in touch with my friends at work and live vicariously through their careers when I need to. It is not the same but it works for me, and the more time that passes, the less I feel drawn to that life. I never have a shortage of things to keep me busy and I am able to devote the time I need to the things I have chosen to prioritize…managing my illness and spending time with those I love. I now have the time to be present in my life and create my own opportunities. This can mean different things to different people…but for me it means less planning and more doing. There is peace in knowing that despite the uncertainty of my future, I have taken control of my present and am living life on my own terms.