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Cancer, Money and Me

October 15, 2010
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In June 2005, I was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer. Financially, the timing could not have been much worse. When I got sick, I had just completed thirteen years of university, culminating with a PhD in health care history and policy, and a huge student loan. My husband Allan had sold his auto body business a year earlier (with no real profit from the sale) and had been laid off from his most recent job. We were, quite literally, in the middle of an expensive move from Beaumont, Alberta to Victoria, BC– Allan had driven our belongings across the Rockies the very weekend I ended up in emergency surgery. Our house was on the market and sold eventually but for very little profit as we closed the deal about five minutes before the Alberta real estate market went wild. I had a job lined up at the University of Victoria for later in the year, but having cancer was clearly going to limit how much teaching I could take on. As financial uncertainty grew in the days following my diagnosis, so too did our resolve. Cancer was not going to screw with our plans, and after all, we told ourselves, we had great credit, should we need it. From my hospital room in Edmonton, we made the decision to go ahead with our move, and several weeks later Allan and I travelled to our new life and our newly rented apartment in Victoria.

Although we had a great deal of fear, we were still eager to begin the great adventure that we had dreamed about for over a decade. Emotionally, given the circumstances, it was heartbreaking to say goodbye to our two daughters and son, all single, young adults who were remaining in Alberta. Practically, we were concerned about having enough money, and worried about not having support, as we didn’t know anybody in Victoria at the time. We needn’t have worried about the latter, as every effort we made to reach out to make new friends was rewarded threefold. Physically, I was able to get through the ten months of chemotherapy quite well, to the amazement of my oncologist. Overall, despite the obvious fact of cancer, our first year in Victoria was one of the best years of our life.

It was also one of the most expensive. Before cancer, the plan had been for Allan to finally work less and fish more, while I started my teaching career. We had budgeted for Allan to remain unemployed for at least the first year of the rest of our wonderful life. My chemotherapy treatments were time consuming and severely limited the amount of teaching that I could do in that first year. Fortunately, Allan was eligible for unemployment insurance, we had a bit of money from the house sale, and as a cushion so that I wouldn’t need to worry about money at the same time that I was worried about dying, we cashed in one of Allan’s RRSPs. If we had lived carefully and frugally, our financial situation might have remained relatively healthy for that year.

But we didn’t. Just in case it should turn out to be true, we lived each day as if there were no tomorrow. Unfortunately, over time that approach caused us to rely more heavily upon credit, than cash. As often as we pleased, we ate out for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We flew our kids out to Victoria multiple times, and entertained other company from Alberta and elsewhere throughout the summer and fall. We served gourmet meals to our guests, and Allan took people fishing four or more times a week that summer, an expensive undertaking with gas prices at an all time high. While Allan fished, I shopped. I bought everything I thought we needed for the new apartment, including new furniture, and a lot of things that we didn’t need. On some days, I simply felt that having cancer entitled me to have that one year of living frivolously. 

Irresponsible spending aside, not knowing how things would turn out that year also led us to appreciate every moment spent with family and friends, and to celebrate every experience in our new life. We truly felt that we had arrived in paradise, and we knew with complete certainty that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives here. When my oncologist told me in early summer 2006 that I was cancer free, I wept with gratitude. And yet, I was – quite frankly –surprised that I had apparently beaten cancer. There has been a lot of cancer in my family over the past decade, but not a lot of survivors. Elated as I was to learn that I would live, my recently concocted idea that my life insurance would take care of any accumulated cancer debt, had clearly backfired.

Over the past few years, I have reflected often upon the lessons that cancer taught me about life and money. I remain cancer free, and am working diligently towards being debt free. I still teach university part-time, and I also work full-time as an executive in the public service. Allan still loves fishing on weekends, but he has a full-time job building and repairing boats. We bought a lovely house, with a rental suite downstairs that will bring in revenue when our youngest daughter (both daughters followed us here from Alberta) moves out next year. We make a very healthy living, and are more conscious and aware of our spending. We have reduced expenses and try really hard to live on cash, not credit. To be honest, we still have some work to do on sticking to our budget. But as we all know, all relationships take continued work. The key to my relationship with money, I have found, is that I need to take responsibility for my part, become and remain aware of my money management shortcomings, and be willing to work on what needs fixing.

Although it is an old cliché, what having cancer actually taught me during what I thought might be the last year of my life, was that money does not buy happiness. I used over spending as a strategy to avoid fear, but money did not buy me the true moments of joy that I experienced that year, nor will it buy what I most cherish today. Relationships with loved ones, and my relationship with myself, are what matter most in my life today. Spending time with my cherished friends, reading a good (library) book, enjoying a (home cooked) meal with Allan and my family, or hosting a (potluck) barbeque in our yard, these are the simple moments that fill me up like no purchase has yet or ever could. Today is a spending free day. Sitting here on a pile of driftwood, pondering and then scribbling down these words has cost me nothing, but it has been an excellent investment of my time. It reminds me to be grateful that I am still here, still living this rich and amazing life.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2010 7:46 am

    Excellent column. Thanks for sharing your experience, Dawn. My health and career are sort of parallel to yours. I was diagnosed with testicular and prostate cancer in 1991 and used that as motivation to complete a PhD I started working on a few years earlier. I’ve been cancer-free since 1996, and enjoyed my academic career (ups, downs and everything in-between) until my spinal injury in 2006. With my teaching career now over, I’ve had to reinvent myself into a consultant and writer in order to maintain intellectual activity and seek fulfillment.

    You’re absolutely correct about the limitation of money. It doesn’t buy happiness; it’s just a means to an end, primarily maintaining a safe life and ensuring our basic needs. Whatever extras we get from money are all well and good, but at the end of the day we have to take stock in what we’ve accomplished outside of our material possessions. Why? Because the fruits of our minds is the legacy we academics look at first, not the size of our homes, the style of car, or even how many vacations we take. In short, it’s the little things we take for granted in good and healthy times that really are the most important. It’s a shame we sometimes don’t realize it until the tough or illness-dominated times.

    I wish you continued success at U-Vic and good health. We happen to be academic neighbors, as I consult for UBC’s chemistry department from my home in New Jersey.

  2. mickey permalink
    November 2, 2010 4:07 am

    What on earth were you doing sitting on a pile of driftwood at 3:22 am ? Your loving friend….Mouse

  3. Claudine permalink
    November 19, 2010 2:19 am

    You truly are amazing, thank you for sharing. Loves ya

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