Coming to terms with an early retirement

The idea of retirement is appealing to many people, but for others it represents a loss of their sense of purpose and identity.

That’s how Kim felt when she recently logged out of her work computer for the last time. At only 59, it’s an early retirement, and one that Kim has been delaying for years.

‘Work has been a huge part of my life,’ says Kim. ‘I feel like I am making a contribution and using my talents in a worthwhile way.’

When her oncologist first advised Kim to finish working in 2019, Kim had been living with metastatic breast cancer for two years. She says she fought ‘tooth and nail’ to stay on in her role as chief people officer for a large organisation of 7,000 employees.

In May this year, however, Kim’s health deteriorated and all of her specialists urged her to stop working. This time, Kim agreed.

‘Spending a lot of time in hospital in June really served as a circuit-breaker. I was no longer working 12 hours a day, and I realised my enjoyment of work had changed since COVID-19 and remote working had become standard,’ she says.

As an experienced human resources professional, Kim thinks workplaces need to be better equipped to support Australians with metastatic breast cancer, and to help them transition out of the workplace when they’re ready.

‘I know women who wanted to keep working and were capable of working but were instead forced to step down, step sideways, or give up work all together simply because their workplace didn’t know what else to do with them,’ she says.

Kim thinks this is more likely to be the case at middle-to small-sized workplaces where there can be a lack of understanding about employment law.

‘Most workplaces don’t have to deal with this situation often, so they are way out of their depth,’ says Kim. ‘There needs to be more support and education for workplaces to handle the transition of staff into medical retirement and to ensure they make it easier for the individual.’

Like many people, Kim’s treatment has been affected by COVID-19. At one stage her treatment was delayed because there was difficulty getting the medication from Singapore. She has had to rely more on her GP than she would have otherwise because her palliative care team aren’t as available under COVID-19 restrictions. She also now has to have a COVID-19 test 72 hours before each of her fortnightly chemotherapy sessions.

Kim thinks people with metastatic disease are not considered a priority group because of their relatively small numbers compared with early breast cancer diagnoses.

‘I know it’s a complex issue and it is important to have positive messages around early breast cancer and survivability, but you also don’t want a group of women to feel like pariahs in their own community. There needs to be acknowledgement that some people do go on to develop metastatic disease,’ she says.

Kim knows it will take time to adjust to retirement. COVID-19 means she can’t fulfil her dreams of travelling, but when she received a bad prognosis in 2019 she managed to see some of the places on her bucket list.

‘I travelled to Scotland and England and spent two weeks in Cambridge. For now, I would just really like to see my mum who lives in New Zealand,’ she says.

Kim’s oncologist predicts metastatic breast cancer will be managed more like a chronic disease, such as heart disease or diabetes, as treatments continue to improve quality of life and extend lives.

‘Even in the four years I’ve had metastatic breast cancer, most of my treatments weren’t available even 10 years ago,’ says Kim. ‘There are new treatments being developed all the time and put on the PBS.’

Kim believes that even in the bleakest of circumstances the joy of life carries on. She is going to use her time now to embrace these joys.

‘I plan to rest, walk every day, spend time with my son playing Finska, watch Outlander with my daughter, make photo albums, write some of my memoir, and to connect with friends. Just simple pleasures.’

You can find information about metastatic breast cancer in My Journey.

Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day will be held on 13 October 2021.

Join us for the Thriving Together – Living Longer, Living Stronger Virtual Conference on Thursday 14 October.  Find out more details and register here.

Issue 89
Spring 2021