Many people in the workforce look forward to retiring one day, and most of us try to do our best to plan for retirement. But even the most prepared among us will face unpredictable life events that can turn those retirement plans upside down. An unexpected medical issue, such as a cancer diagnosis, may cause you to seriously rethink your career goals and retirement plans. Though many people diagnosed with breast cancer continue to work, either out of choice or necessity, others either choose or feel forced to consider an early medical retirement.
We asked members of the Breastcancer.org Community who retired sooner than they had planned to share their experiences, discuss how they dealt with the unexpected change in their retirement plans, and let us know what they’ve been up to since they retired. Here are some of their stories (edited slightly for clarity).
“Retiring early was the right decision for me.”
I decided to retire early, at 58. I was minimally eligible, but I knew I would not want to return to work following a bilateral mastectomy. So I ran the numbers. It was going to be tight, but I think it will work out. I had a 401K through work and savings. My last day at work was a sick day — I was getting round four of chemo. This was the second time for me with breast cancer, and now I am going through a third time. So much for successful treatment.
I think retiring early was the right decision for me, even though finances are a little tighter than I thought they would be. I do not miss work, and really enjoy not having to plan trips and activities around work. I did not anticipate having cancer for a third time, and the incurred costs. – BlueGirlRedState
“I decided it was time to quit.”
In 2018, at age 69, I was still working part time but had gradually decreased my days down to just one per week. I had been thinking of quitting completely, but still enjoyed the work and the people I worked with.
When I had the biopsy and before I had the result (which was most likely cancer), I decided it was time to quit. Even though it was only one day a week, I was still locked into this and would sometimes be asked to do some extra days. I decided there were things I wanted to do while my husband and I were still able to enjoy them.
I told my employer that I would retire as of June 1, regardless of the outcome of the biopsy. The diagnosis was IDC and I had surgery and radiation. My employer understood my decision and gave me a nice retirement party and gift in June.
Since then, I have been enjoying my gardening and, as my husband says, I am happiest when digging in the dirt! I also enjoy a daily long walk with our dog. We have taken an Alaskan cruise for our 50th anniversary and plan on another this coming February.
Financially, we are doing OK and have some savings to rely on in our old age. Medically, I am on Medicare and a supplement which covers our medical expenses.
I still get called by my office manager occasionally to help out and have gone in to work a few times since I left, but it is up to me to say yes or no. – flowergal
“I felt pushed out of my company…”
…and I had not planned to retire so soon. I had a single mastectomy and chemo. The chemo affected me, as it does many others, with "chemo-brain," and I was diagnosed after a full day of testing with cognitive impairment. The testing was done at the request of the insurance carrier. My company kept pressuring me to come back to work, in spite of the cognitive diagnosis. The insurance carrier seemed not to believe their contracted person who had done the testing and diagnosis.
So I was pressured by my company to return to work. The insurance company did not believe their own testing and were refusing to support me anymore. I had cognitive impairment. I felt completely unsupported by the organizations that were badgering me, so I retired. I’m not happy about the circumstances, but happy that I'm out of the rat race. I hope I've got enough money to see me through to the end of my life. – Albertan
“My only option is early retirement.”
I had a 401k since I was 25 and the last 11 years have also included a retirement plan/pension from my employer. I was diagnosed stage IV de novo in 2016 but continued to work. Brain mets were found in 2017 and I still worked until the summer of 2018 when treatment related side effects became challenging to manage while working full time. At 43, I went on extended leave and plan to retire officially next month.
Unfortunately, at 44, my only option is early retirement with a 26% penalty and a distribution over many years (retirement plan’s formula, not how long I may actually have left). This leaves me with enough to cover my portion of my husband’s healthcare premium plus maybe $5 a month. Laughable, but I’m grateful for the good insurance. I’ll roll over the 401k after I retire so my husband will have it, and I was able to get an accelerated death benefit payout for current needs. – illimae
“I was very sad to let go of this dream.”
I had worked really hard for about 5 years to become independent from employers and get my graphic design business on its way when the news hit. I was very sad to let go of this dream but decided really fast that from here on out my family and myself are worth spending all my time on. Fortunately, my husband’s income is sufficient to keep us afloat. We can continue to raise our 3 kids and take care of our elderly Moms.
Altogether, I believe that my cancer was brought on by an overload of stress (several deaths in the immediate family and an overwhelming workload which I think had me already on a path of depression/burnout). It almost seems that I was brought back to my senses by this life-changing diagnosis. – Patty66
“Extensive volunteering and … a small hobby.”
After treatment for early stage disease, I went back to my part-time job for 18 months then quit at age 55. I had been retired for 12 years while our son was growing up then worked for a decade to cover my husband’s loss of employment and also private school tuition! My profession was a well-paying one.
The opportunity to do extensive volunteering and enjoy a small hobby income were mainstays of both time periods, until metastatic disease arrived. Fortunately, I had enough recent Social Security credits to qualify for disability. Putting in more than a few hours a week would jeopardize that. We travel as my health allows.
With fatigue and anemia, frequent rest is required, which means that I cannot keep up the pace of a busy location. Also, the ability to avoid crowds with their nasty viruses and other infectious organisms is probably to my advantage since I can run errands and go shopping when stores are lightly populated. – vlnrph
“It will be tight but I’m thankful for my benefits.”
I, as many others have shared, felt pushed out of my job. My job description was changed, making it physically impossible for me to manage while recovering from my cancer treatment of surgery, chemo, radiation, Herceptin, and hormonal therapy. Luckily, I had been with my organization for 20 years and was within less than a year for eligible retirement, so they had to let me retire intact if I covered my own medical through Cobra for 11 months and 3 weeks.
I worked part time closer to home for a couple of years and finally took early Social Security at 62. It will be tight but I’m thankful for my benefits to have covered me as well as they did and even though I didn’t plan on leaving my job I think it was for the best for my medical recovery. It takes a lot longer to recover than we are advised at the onset. – ChaCha57
“I am in the middle of making this decision right now …”
… I was diagnosed with ILC on August 30, and it is Stage IV with metastases to bone. I'm taking Arimidex and getting radiation therapy, then will probably start Ibrance after my radiation is complete. I am only 57 and I'm a physician, and had not planned to retire until at least age 65.
Because of bone metastases, I do have a fair amount of pain. I thought it was just "getting older" and "arthritis" prior to my diagnosis. I have a reasonably high pain threshold, so I was able to go into some pretty good denial. I also have horrible fatigue, which was present before my radiation treatments.
I do have a long-term disability plan, so I could use that while I'm making my decision, but somehow I feel like it would be "giving up" to stop working. I'm afraid if I let this change my life drastically, I will be giving in to the disease and potentially shortening my life. Financially, I should be at least OK, but I don't know if I would be emotionally. – KatherineAriadne
“I'm fighting feeling ‘defeated’ if I decide to retire.”
I'm back 120% at work, but do I enjoy it? After being back a couple of months they changed my role and I don't feel it's for the better. It seems like more work (especially travel) for less opportunity (I don’t have to “manage” anymore — like that’s good). While chemo and the intense part of treatment was difficult, I had more time with my husband, which we both enjoyed as he’s older and already retired, and worked from home, which was less stressful than time in the office and on the road. We focus on not letting cancer “defeat” us, but there’s no question it changes your perspective, and it makes you want to change other things in your life. But I’m still not sure on work. I’m fighting feeling “defeated” if I decide to retire. It feels like letting people down, especially women coming up behind me who like seeing a superwoman style return, and maybe also will gratify other people who didn’t expect me back at all! Grrrr ... Is it too soon to know what I really want? Do I really just want different work, not retirement?
While I think about it, I'm working like a nutter on the road every week while still getting treatment (you can get subcutaneous Herceptin treatment in a lot of countries), and it's certainly not a downshift. It's more travel than ever, and I can't say it's fun. – boogirl
“I was in no way financially prepared to retire.”
I have posted in other forums about being forced out of my job. I was deeply saddened by this course of events. I was very disappointed that my employer chose to be so callous. I was diagnosed in my forties so I was in no way financially prepared to retire. I had experienced layoffs in prior recessions and, ironically, had made a career change just a few years earlier in hopes of having more stable employment prospects.
I am in the U.S. Many of us know that we have a number of challenges with our healthcare system. Some people do not realize how dramatically that arrangement can affect their employment prospects if they have high medical costs. If an employer is "fully insured," meaning buys insurance for all employees, our high medical costs may drive up the cost of coverage for the business. If we work for large employers, those employers often "self insure," meaning they do not buy insurance but actually pay our medical bills. Very few people realize this. It's an advantage for employers with a young, healthy workforce. But if you are costing your employer hundreds of thousands indefinitely, it doesn't make you the most attractive employee.
I have read accounts of many people with high healthcare costs being forced out over these perverse incentives. I can't even entirely vilify the companies. It's just too crazy that our employers have anything to do with providing our healthcare. I certainly admire companies that are supportive and treat employees well. If you have not been so fortunate, I would encourage you to let your elected officials know. Consider speaking up and being an advocate for eliminating these barriers to continuing to work. If we don't nothing will change. – Lumpie
Did you make the decision or feel forced to retire before you had planned to as a result of your breast cancer diagnosis? How did you come to the decision? Were you prepared? What have you ended up doing in your retirement? Join the conversation.
Written by: Melissa Bollmann-Jenkins, community director