Know Stage IV: Breast Cancer Ended My Career
For LBBC’s Know Stage IV campaign, on Sept. 18, members of LBBC’s 2017 class of Hear My Voice Outreach Volunteers have written about what they want other to know about metastatic breast cancer. Learn more about Know Stage IV.
For Know Stage IV, Anise Smith writes about how metastatic breast cancer forced her to stop working and upended her finances and her sense of purpose.
“Congratulations!” “Aren’t you lucky!” “You get to retire in your 30s – must be nice!”
What people who say this don’t realize is that the reason I can no longer work is because I have stage IV breast cancer.
I was first diagnosed in 2011 with stage III breast cancer. I underwent a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and breast reconstruction surgery. I went 4 years cancer-free and then on the day before Thanksgiving 2014, at the end of my work shift, I was told that I had stage IV breast cancer. My cancer had come back and spread to my lung. At 36 I was given a death sentence. I’m a medical social worker with a master’s degree. I’ve spent nearly 10 years working in the medical field, 4 of those years working in hospice care specifically, so when I heard stage IV, I knew what it meant: no cure, certain death.
After a short time off I returned back to work, because what else was I supposed to do? I was 36, in the middle of a divorce, raising three kids – I had to work. I did my best to work for the following 2 years.
After a little over 2 years of working on and off, I was out of paid time off, so after talking to my doctor I decided I could no longer stay employed.
I had once talked with my co-workers about how sad I was that I would never get an actual retirement with a retirement party, so the administration at my work threw me a retirement party even though I did not work enough years to technically retire.
While most people considered me lucky to be able to retire at 38, I was not. I loved my job. I actually did work that changed people’s lives. I had my own office (rare for a social worker), business cards, and a lab coat (which made me feel so professional). I had planned to work there for another 25 years and I was OK with that. Now it was gone.
The days after my retirement were busy. I had to ensure I had insurance for me and my daughters and that my disability paperwork was in order. And I had to face the realization that I was now on an extremely tight fixed income. After all of the paperwork and phone calls, I was left with nothing to do.
Now this might sound great to some people, but really I had a difficult time, questioning, “Why am I here? What is my purpose?” I know I’m here to raise my kids and to teach them, but there’s something about no longer working and, more so, being too sick to work, that leaves you with this hollow feeling of emptiness. What is life without a purpose? I had plans to volunteer more, to help at the school, to advocate, to help my family, including my mom who also has stage IV breast cancer (although she is nearly 70). But I find myself with so little energy and in constant pain.
So, although I have grand plans, to travel, to create, to advocate, often times, I can’t. I have to decide my priorities and right now it’s my kids. So my days consist of waking up to see them off to school, then sleeping until they come home from school, and hoping that I’ll have energy to spend time with them after school and before bed.
It has now been 7 months since I stopped working. My cancer has continued to spread, most recently to the pericardial sac around my heart. But today I’m stable and that is a victory.
Slowly but surely I will get to my bucket list. I will create memories with my kids but I will also show them what it’s like to have a real mom, which means they get disciplined, they don’t always get what they want, and they have to help around the house. I struggled with this, thinking they have a tough life and a tough road ahead of them, and I tried to be a “nice mom” all the time. But I realized that I wasn’t doing them any favors. While I’m here I will do my best to teach them a lifetime of knowledge in the years I have left.
But they do have a good life: They travel more than I ever did as a kid. I let them sleep in my bed when they have a bad dream. Many nights they get to choose their own dinner, which often includes some sugary cereal and maybe some Goldfish. But they will know life: They will know the struggles and the victories, the ugliness and the beauty. They have witnessed the generosity of humankind. We have been blessed over and over. They have been tested, having to watch their mom in the hospital or bedridden at home, but they have also witnessed miracles. So in the end I know they’ll be OK.
So as I learn to navigate this new life as a retiree I can acknowledge the struggles that come with it. I’m still looking for something to keep me occupied. I do try to help in the schools. I try to do advocacy work to help my fellow stage IV brothers and sisters. I try to help with sports. I even try to help with homework. I haven’t got it all figured out but I’m working on it.
Learn the facts. Support the cause. Know Stage IV.