Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website: www.feliciamitchell.net
A cancer journey influences how a person contemplates retirement. In my case, it inspired me to retire from teaching earlier than I had originally planned.
Mindful work is good not just for those we serve, but also for us. The work-life balance is complicated by a cancer journey. When I posted something on Facebook about how I was thinking about retiring a little early, I got great responses. One friend, however, reminded me of how we often hear of somebody who dies shortly after retirement. I let that go.
Because people do not perish due to retirement but for other reasons, I opted for leaving while I was feeling strong with the strength a summer break can give a teacher. I did not savor a return to teaching during the pandemic, so my decision made me feel lighter. The decision-making process also made me feel as if I were giving myself an extra year in compensation for the difficult year expended to cancer treatment.
This current decision comes as I prepare to mark the tenth anniversary of the cancer diagnosis that made work both necessary and challenging. I went back to work too soon after surgery. I worked through treatment. I worked through chemo brain and intense fatigue and psychological stress. Of course, I worked. I worked to pay for health care and all the rest.
Despite all those reasons, however, I worked to feel alive. I love teaching. But I have been so often tired, though I try to appear fully energetic and able. What some do not know about these last many years is how I sometimes had energy for work and not much else. As I stored up my energies to climb mountains, or do housework, I rested more than some might have to. I let some things go.
When I realized it would be feasible for me to detach several months short of 65, to plan days over which I have more control, I felt thankful. I did think through the decision, with plenty of spreadsheets to figure out finances and contingency plans for the unexpected. Working longer, one does end up with more money. I asked myself, "When is 'enough' enough?"
The underlying theme of my mortality, a theme inspired by my cancer journey, influenced my answer.
When you are a cancer survivor, there is always a numbers game you play in your head or with charts and graphs on your computer or paper. You get statistics early on about survival rates. Then there are five-year survival rates. Ten-year survival rates. There are predictions about recurrence and long-term side effects, etc. The one firm figure you do not get unless your doctor is able to tell you that you have maybe six months to live, or less, is how long you get to enjoy retirement.
Time seems more precious to me each day. With retirement, mindful of the Buddhist saying "chop wood, carry water," I hope to be occupied in a meaningful way with housework, yard work, volunteer work, and, most of all, the gift of the present moment. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Cancer teaches us about today.