How to Un-Retire after Dodging Cancer


This male breast cancer survivor goes back to work after a long break to consider his future and find his passion again.

I've always adhered to the notion that, despite the vocation we choose to follow in our lives, we are not our "jobs". Our work does not define who we are but rather, it illuminates and supports our passions, beliefs and commitments. Unfortunately, I know a few people who stumbled into or got pushed into careers that paid the bills but did little to add fulfillment to their lives. They couldn't wait to retire to begin living the life they dreamed of. I was fortunate to choose my occupation in life, and while it wasn't always smooth sailing, it was deeply satisfying and challenging on many levels.

In 2014 I considered retiring from forty years of working as a stage magician. My wife and I had moved to Hawaii with the intention of staying there one year to take a break from the busy times in crowded California before deciding where we wanted to land for our final home, at which time I planned on going back to work in the profession I loved. I was 64 years old, and in my kind of work, I figured I could work well into my seventies. Then breast cancer showed up in my life and threw my plans into a tailspin.

That's pretty much what cancer does to many of us. But in my case, I was left not only without a breast but without a vocation. In actuality, it felt as though I no longer had a purpose. Inherently, I knew that wasn't true, but how things feel are so often more noticeable than how things really are.

After my mastectomy I was preoccupied with the daily routine of simply surviving, so the future in which I saw myself performing again was murky at best. Moving back to the mainland, I was astonished to see that my first year as a cancer survivor zipped by in the blink of an eye. Surprisingly, my decision to forgo chemotherapy didn't buy me any freedom. In fact, it was this very act of doing nothing, of watching and waiting and living moment to moment, that stunted my desire to work again. It's like the numbness we feel when we get slapped in the face. It's a sting that lingers until we figure out why we got slapped in the first place. Why me? Why now? These are good questions to ask, but they have no definitive answer. Logic cannot give us an explanation about why we have cancer, and so our tendency may be to wait and wonder.

Unless we are rendered physically unable to resume the work or the hobbies or the activities we enjoyed before cancer changed the course of our lives, there is in my view, an opportunity to reconnect with those things. For me, it was a self-imposed gridlock that made me impotent. In my case, the key was to find a way to go back to work that acknowledged cancer in my life rather than to pretend it wasn't there. Though I was symptom free for the most part, I still dragged the ball and chain of cancer around with my mindset.

I began to visit kids with cancer at some of the "Cancer Camps" around the U.S.— doing magic of course. Before I knew it, my vitality was back, along with my hunger to get back on the road with my work. What I've learned from all of this is that we don't have to give up those things we enjoy to make room for our cancer. Naturally, this doesn't only apply to our vocations. A hobby or a bucket list or volunteer work may be the perfect prescription for un-retirement. And we don't have to jump back into the 9 to 5 mentality or spend long days rejoining our past. Just a positive link to something we embraced before cancer showed up in our lives may be enough. As far as cancer is concerned, the only way to go is up. When we rediscover the passions in our lives, we can introduce everyone to an even more resilient and remarkable version of ourselves.

"I cannot do everything, but I can do something. I must not fail to do the something that I can do." - Helen Keller

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