Something is changing in me. I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m approaching a year of being “cancer-free” (no evidence of disease) or if it’s something else. Getting older, maybe? My 60th birthday is rapidly approaching, which will mark 2 years since I started cancer treatment (my first chemo was the day after I turned 58). I expected things to start changing, but it’s beginning to feel like an avalanche is getting ready to roll.
I’m starting to understand “the great resignation” that this country has experienced, but at the same time, I’m made of DNA from a man who worked until he physically couldn’t anymore (due to cancer). I don’t know how to not work, but I’m looking a little way down the road toward a time when I can work on just what I want to work on – my books and crafts. I love the company I work for, so I really don’t want to go looking, but I’m going through a time of ennui, anxiety, slight depression, and general apathy. I’m worried about my mind. I’m worried that I’m wasting what might be the last good years of my life stressed out and sleepless. You never know with aggressive cancer when it could come back. I might live five years. I might live twenty years. Despite the treatments they have now, my type of cancer gives me a 72% chance of surviving 5 years. And I don’t know – did that clock start ticking two years ago? Every day I see another post about one of the women in the support groups finally succumbing to her cancer. And is all this stress good for me?
I have one final class to complete a web development certificate, and I really don’t want to do it. But my company paid for it, so I’ll finish. I did a little of the schoolwork this morning, and I’ll try to get another chunk of it done by tonight. That will at least move me toward the goal line.
And speaking of goals, it’s getting harder to set them. Suddenly, those professional goals we set for annual reviews are starting to feel like washing dishes without gloves, for me (with eczema). It starts out as a little itch, but pretty soon I want to scratch the skin off of myself. I’m raw and in agony. I never want to do it again, because it annoys me to the point of a primal scream.
Let me be clear. I never thought I’d be saying this around the big six-oh. I have often said I’d work until I dropped. Suddenly, I don’t care so much for that idea. The bumpy road of the last few weeks got me to look up, look around, and ask myself why. Why have I been so driven? Why have I wanted to keep growing and making more money? What has it bought me? Yes, I have a roof over my head and some sense of security, but I find myself increasingly stressed about what I’ll do in the end. Will I have enough money? Will I be able to take care of myself? Will I have healthcare?? Yes I’m putting money aside, but not enough. Never enough.
Some of the questions above lead my mind into that bad neighborhood of depression. I try not to go there. I ask myself why I want to escape so badly that I could chew off my own foot. I’m starting to see myself living far from the beaten path in a small home with my dog, writing every morning and enjoying tea on the patio every evening. Relaxed. Sleeping normally. Not breaking out in patches of eczema so badly that I hide from the world. I know that is stress. I know the sleeplessness is stress. I turn off the lights and my brain says, “Hey, let’s think about all the stuff you didn’t get right today!” I’m just spiritually exhausted.
The funny thing about all of this is that I’m going back to an earlier dream. I used to tell my ex-husband that someday I wanted to be writing from the room of a farmhouse, where I could watch cows grazing in the pasture. For a while, the dream was so vivid that I outfitted my kitchen with Holstein cows to inspire me and remind me that someday I’d live that dream.
When is the last time I wrote a poem? When is the last time I tried to publish a story? When is the last time I just sat in nature without thinking about work? Work doesn’t pay me to use up my off time to think about solving their problems.
My son and my sister think I should go back to technical writing for the rest of my work time, but that would involve looking for work again. I like the company I work for. And I certainly don’t want to train for anything else, because well, my next big ambition is retirement. I don’t know why it’s calling to me so strongly, but I can tell you that if I had the money for private health insurance, I would retire today. I’m tired. I don’t ever want to take another class for work. That’s how tired I am. This is completely different than how I felt before cancer.
How do you motivate yourself to do what you no longer want to do? How do people make it in retirement if they don’t have a pension or a fat 401k? I’m not foolish enough to think I could be the next Stephen King or Amy Tan or even James Patterson. But I want to do what I want to do. How cheaply can I live? I’m actually ready to start giving up belongings. All I see when I look at most of them now is the upkeep and space they employ. I’m facing another summer of lawn care that I don’t have the strength to do. This year I’ll pay someone to do it. And I pay someone to clean this big house. And I pay and I pay and I pay. This is not how I want to be living when it’s my time to go.
I kind of wish my son had a room for me, but I’ll find a place for myself.
I really wish my doctor would take a good look at what’s happening to my body and give me a disability statement. My health has been poor for a long while now due to chronic pain and autoimmune disease. Then cancer. Then cancer treatment. And yet I keep going. But I’m tired. I’m discouraged. I feel like I will die, literally, at my desk.
Other things are weighing into all of this. A friend is experiencing severe memory problems. I fear for her and her wife. This is a woman who had a brilliant career. It’s not fair. And she’s barely gotten to enjoy her retirement at all. A guy who spent his whole career in government contracting at a company I once worked at dropped dead of a heart attack the day after he retired. Another friend is enjoying retirement with her wife (both close to my age), but she has CHF and deserves to sop up every single bit of life that she can. Other women I know are in worse financial shape than I am. I don’t think they will be able to retire well or maybe at all. All of us have fought and scrapped with the corporate world and climbed our way up through the ranks of that world that really didn’t want us, a world that paid us far less than we were worth, simply because of our gender. I feel like I have financial parity now, but I’m exhausted.
I was reading an article just the other day about famous women who’ve had breast cancer (most of them stage 1) and survived it. Hoda Kotb said something like this: there is life before cancer and life after cancer. The life after cancer is better than you could ever imagine. That, of course, is just one more morsel feeding my need to be me. Cancer changed the way I look at the world and at the value of my life. When those dark thoughts come, of wondering why I am still walking this planet, of wondering why I don’t just end it, I start to realize that dying isn’t what I want; living is. I had a really bad cancer, and it might come back. As it is, I already had another scare in which they saw something worrisome on my follow-up scans and did another biopsy. I thought it was all starting over again.
Stress is worse, I think, for your body than even a lack of exercise, but when you combine the two, it’s very risky. The more I stress about work, the less energy I have to get out in nature the way I want to. It was after a particularly high-stress position that I got my first diagnosis. I need to give this a lot more thought so I don’t end up back in that situation. I might not survive it next time, and then I would have cheated myself out of enjoying what’s left of my life.
So. I’ll finish this course, as much as it is stressing me out (mostly because I don’t care about it). I’ll continue to work until I can figure this all out. And I’ll continue to pray that God keeps me going through this very, very rough patch. The thing about change is, it’s never easy. But sometimes you need to get really uncomfortable in order to do what’s best for yourself. You have to hit a kind of rock bottom. I think I can see it from here.