He’s a reader of this blog, and he was on track to retire at Age 57.
Then, Cancer hit.
This is his story.
It’s a powerful lesson for all of us in the importance of planning for adversity, told by “one of us” who’s living it at this very moment. When cancer and retirement collide. A story that teaches the reality of one of life’s most severe curveballs, and how a reader of this blog is learning to deal with a new reality.He was planning to retire at age 57. Then, cancer hit. This is his story of working through adversity. Click To Tweet
When Cancer And Retirement Collide
When cancer and retirement collide, your plans can change in an instant. Following is the story of a reader and his wife who are experiencing that reality firsthand. They’ve learned some valuable lessons in dealing with adversity, and I thank him for sharing them with you today. With that, here’s his story…
This guest post will be a little different than what you normally might see. You see, I reached out to Fritz to tell him I have been a reader of his blog and that I have found it very helpful. I also noted to him that as I have been reading retirement blogs just about all of them do not cover an important topic. Don’t get me wrong, they offer great financial insights, perspectives and planning tools.
What they have not been addressing is the not so fun topic of working through adversity when you are close to retirement.
It’s a topic I’ve (unfortunately) become well acquainted with, and I’m sharing my story today to reiterate the importance of being prepared to work through adversity as you plan for retirement. Also, I’m learning some things along the way, and it’s my hope that others can benefit from the experience my wife and I are going through. Here’s our story.
Ready For Retirement
If you want to gander on our back story that is specific to our financial preparation for retirement I was Millionaire #97 over at ESI Money. That was way back in 2018 which seems like a lifetime ago. And if you notice there is reference to a blog I was doing at the time, but due to my need to focus on family, I have since removed that blog site.
So we were, and continue to be, well prepared financially for retirement. I had a goal to retire in 2023 at age 57 and we knew we could achieve that. The single biggest concern was healthcare insurance. If I retired early we would have to go to the open market to purchase it. Even with no pre-existing conditions we were budgeting a hefty annual premium in our retirement forecasts.
Then life hit us smack dab in the face. The “C” word – cancer. My wife was diagnosed Stage 4 in 2016 and since then she has been through five years of surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
For the numbers types let me give you a quick summary of some financial data. In 2019 there were $990,252 in gross charges for healthcare. Insurance actually paid a lot less – $349,897 and we paid out $14,019 (Premiums and Copays/deductibles). In 2020, there were $893,327 in gross charges for healthcare (not all charges are in yet), insurance paid $301,751 and we paid out $14,019.
With her diagnosis our focus changed.
Fortunately money has not been an issue – even with a big decrease in my salary. I had been planning to change careers to start preparing for retirement – a lower stress one would be nice. Although it happened unexpectedly through a “right-sizing” event, I was able to find a great new career at a non-profit agency. The plan was to change careers just not the way it ended up happening – but hindsight is 20/20 and it all worked out fine.
Health insurance has also not an issue since I had coverage through my employer high deductible plan. I
have continued to max out my health spending account (HSA) and have not even submitted claims
against it yet (to allow it to keep growing tax free). In 2021 I plan to add via the Over 55 catch up
contribution to the HSA as well. And since my wife is also 55, she can also contribute to her own HSA,
which means in total for 2021 we will put $9,200 total into both of our plans (actually less since my
employer matches my HSA deferrals, which means they contribute $1,040, leaving $7,160 for us).
Even with a big drop in salary I have also continued to max out my 401k, including the Over 50 Catch Up.
I have been maxing out my 401k for many years. Once I hit 50, I started maxing out the Over 50 Catch
Retirement On Hold
The biggest change has been the recognition that my retirement plans are now on hold. Without my
employer sponsored health insurance plan there most likely would be a big increase in premiums if we
tried to obtain health insurance in the open market. And even coverage we could find may impact her
physician relationship if they are not in network under the plan. I do admit that we have not even asked
a broker to work us up a quote – something I should do.
Our financial security has allowed us to focus on her care and treatment. Though this new reality
brought on new challenges related to her care and treatment. I want to share how we have been
working through adversity physically and emotionally. Please do not consider this advice, consider it our
perspective on what worked for us. Not everything we have done will work the same for others. Not
everyone may agree with what we are doing and that’s fine. We are sharing our approach to allow you
to decide for yourself what you might do if you face adversity.
Faith, Family & Friends (“F-Cubed”) – Three pillars of support.
We have found that we cannot go through these tough times without support. We are grateful to have a
roof over us that is supported by three strong pillars. These pillars have provided the additional strength
for those times when we have started to show signs of weakness. These pillars are also just always
there, waiting in the background, ready to flex up at a moment’s notice when extra strength is needed.
To me faith is expressed differently by different people. My wife is deeply religious, starting
every day with a rosary and prayer. I am religious and have faith that a higher power is watching over
us. Others may express faith in a different manner. Whatever works for you, find some faith to help
keep you going.
I have grown up in a family that has been spread out geographically for many years. We stay in
touch but not as often as we would like. My wife’s family is tight geographically, other than me taking
her to Texas, all her family is back in Ohio. During trying times our families have provided support to us.
One of my brothers flew in from overseas to support us when my wife was first diagnosed. A key
learning for me is that you may need to initiate conversation – even family struggles with what to say
and how to help.
We have groups of friends. The “Close Knit’ group who is always there. The “Casual” group we
know through past and present activities we have been involved in. Both my wife and I have one or two
real close friends that we are able to talk more openly with. Interestingly we have both found our
closest confidants have had experience with cancer. I think that due to them going through a very
similar experience allows us to relate better to what we are going through.
Take Care of Yourself
It is vitally important to make sure you find foods that you will like AND that will help you
nutritionally. You will need to experiment a bit on this one. With my wife’s cancer diagnosis it took time
to figure out things that worked. And every time something worked, things changed due to the
introduction of new medicines.
Staying active is not only good for you physically but also emotionally. Know your limits and
set new goals. My wife is an active walker/runner – doing 4 miles a day. After her multiple surgeries and
chemo she had to reset her expectations. We worked on accomplishing a walk around the inside of the
house, graduating to a walk halfway down the block, then a full block, etc…Increasing distance and not
worrying about time.
Don’t forget about the caregiver. It is important that these folks stay active and fit to be able to
provide support. I worked out deals with family and friends to visit so I could get out and rejuvenate the
body, mind and soul.
Focus on what you can control
This is a hard one for a person (a reference to me) who is OCD about being in control all the time. My wife
is the one who has had to put up with my control issues! Honestly, it makes no sense to worry about
what you cannot control. It is an emotional drain on you.
We both agreed early on that we would not dwell on the ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’ talk. There is no
sense replaying that old song. All it would do is mire us in a repetitive Ground Hog Day movie scene.
My biggest challenge was recognizing that I was not in control.
I had to accept that I was not in the driver’s seat, I was just a passenger along for the trip. What was more challenging is I had to stop being a backseat driver trying to call the shots. While I am not in the driver’s seat I am being an active advocate for my wife and her care.
Acknowledge that life goes on.
This was a tough one. What do you mean the world does not stop and revolve around us when
something bad happens? This is out there but maybe it does not connect until it hits you personally.
You see the headline news about a major tragedy. It is far away and while you see the impact maybe
the lack of a personal connection does not keep your interest too long.
When something happens to you directly or someone close to you, you might wonder how or why the
world around you continues on. Well, that is life. Life does continue on. Those around you have to
make a living to keep going on. They will go on vacation. They will post cool things on Facebook.
That does not mean those close to you don’t care because they do care. They are not continuing on as
usual to piss you off. They are continuing on to fulfill their own lives.
Once we accepted that other people had their own lives and we did not take it personally it made it
easier. When we looked at Facebook updates we tried to flip negatives to positives. Instead of saying
“wish we could do that” we started saying “we will do that when things get better.”
Get to know your diagnosis
We were thrust into my wife’s diagnosis on an emergency basis. We went to the emergency room, got
testing done, and within an hour we were told she has a large tumor with a 99.9% certainty that it was
cancerous. Hell, we went into the ER thinking maybe there was some simple intestinal tract issue.
Once we got through the emergency surgery we started studying up on what her diagnosis meant. I
listened intently to the doctors, wrote down everything and then googled it. At the time I worked at a
hospital, so I would call or text doctors or administrators to bounce things off them (something I know
the average person does not have access to).
ALWAYS ask questions. Every doctor visit, every procedure, every time.
There is one specific thing with my wife’s diagnosis we did NOT focus on – statistics like prognosis or
survival rates. It is not that we were burying our heads in the ostrich’s preverbal sand. We were quite
aware of the severity of the staging diagnosis. We just chose not to become Vegas odds makers with
Number one, survival rates are just averages and we were not going to be part of the average. We were
going to be the exception to the rule and take this head-on.
Number two, survival rates are typically dated. By the time official studies are started, go through trials,
get written up, peer-reviewed, and published they are older than new treatments that might be
Be your own advocate
You need to become your own advocate. Doctor offices and insurance companies are dealing with
hundreds and thousands of patients. You are one of those and sometimes you get lost in the shuffle of
every day workloads – not because people do not care but because they are dealing with more than
they can handle.
One of the biggest challenges we have had is getting approval for procedures and drugs for my wife’s
treatment. Insurance companies have all sorts of ‘approval’ requirements related to high cost
treatments. Luckily I have healthcare work experience and understand most of this but it was still a
The simple lesson I learned – When discussing changes in care plans that involve new procedures/new
drugs – write everything down the doctor tells you. Then, call your insurance company and ask for a
patient advocate. Explain it to them and then specifically ask that person if any of these new treatment
plans require a “pre-determination” or a “pre-authorization” from insurance. And keep on this until you
get a confirmation letter in the mail that shows insurance has approved.
Lastly – If your insurance does not authorize a treatment, call your doctor and demand what is called a
“peer-to-peer” review of your case. This is where your doctor calls the insurance medical director to
discuss your treatment with the goal of getting it approved. In my wife’s case, we have had to do this
Chunk It Up
We were overwhelmed right off the bat with the diagnosis. Going from a great suburban life and zero
health issues to the ER, to emergency surgery and diagnosis of cancer was a lot to absorb in less than 12
I have a favorite saying. “Chunk it up.” I could have easily used “Break it up” or “Cut it up” but where is
the fun catchy word in that? Anyway, what this means is take a big thing and chunk it up into smaller
pieces. That way it becomes a more manageable thing and you can also celebrate some small wins
along the way.
We knew that there would be a long road ahead. The staging diagnosis meant that this would be a
lifelong condition for my wife. We decided we would take things one day at a time. Take it in small
stages, celebrate the small accomplishments and if something new came up, repeat.
Our new mantra is “As long as today is better than yesterday we are moving in the right direction.” And
a key to this is that “better” is not defined – it could be as big as being declared NED (no evidence of
disease) or as small as being able to get up out of bed without puking due to the nausea.
In just under five years to date, we have had multiple “chunks”:
- Get through emergency surgery and recovery.
- Go through Round 1 of Chemo and recover.
- Be told that she has NED.
- Have surgery to reverse the first surgery.
- Be told the cancer is back and go through major surgery and recover.
- Go through Round 2 of Chemo and recover.
- Be told that she has NED a second time.
- Change Oncologists.
- Be told the cancer is back and start Round 3 of Chemo.
- Be told the cancer is back and start Round 4 of Chemo.
- Add in a short round of Radiation Therapy.
- Wait for the regular check-in cycle.
- Be told cancer is back and has spread to another area.
- Start Round 5 of Chemo.
In addition to all the above, I left out going through a couple hurricanes during this time.
All of these things help us cope with our situation. I do not want to suggest all is good – it is not. We still
experience low points. When we do, we let it all out there. We shed the tears. However, we are
convinced that the recovery from those low points is positively impacted by the approaches above.
When cancer and retirement collide, your reality can change in a moment. What a story, and a powerful reminder to never take our health for granted. As I read through those “15 Chunks”, I can’t help but pause and think what it must be like going through the adversity they’re facing. My heart goes out to the author and his wife. I’ve been shocked by how many of our friends are dealing with very serious health issues, and my wife and I have had numerous discussions on how grateful we are for every healthy day that have in our early retirement.
Just as this reader experienced, your life can change in an instant. Be grateful for every day, you never know what the future holds. If you’re one of the many who have a major curveball thrown your way, I hope this reader’s experience will be helpful as you work through adversity in your own life.
To the guest post author, my thoughts and prayers are with you and your wife. Thank you for sharing your powerful story and the lessons you’ve learned through your trials. Your words help others who are struggling with adversity. You’re not alone, and sharing what you’re going through will be of tremendous help to others. Praying for a full recovery, and a future retirement of your dreams. Please keep me updated as things progress, I sincerely care about what you and your wife are going through and would like to keep in touch.
Your Turn: Have you dealt with major adversity in your life? What lessons have you learned?