Retirement advice from a cancer survivor

Marketplace Contributor Mar 25, 2013

Five years ago, I got a tax refund of about $1,500, and I had a decision to make. I could put the money in my retirement account, or I could keep it in a savings account so I’d be able to get to it if I needed cash.

I had cancer when I was 10, and it had recently come back. Even though I was healthy again, I was worried about what would happen to my family if the cancer returned, and I couldn’t work. I might need that tax refund to pay my bills.

Because of my medical history, some of my friends suggested that I shouldn’t be saving money at all, that I should take a special family vacation or spend money on fun things while I was still healthy enough to enjoy them. But that seemed morbid to me. That kind of carpe diem attitude made me feel like I was expecting to get cancer again.

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So I decided to hope for the best and plan my finances as if I had a future. Instead of spending money on an expensive vacation, or planning for a long illness, I decided to plan for a long career, with retirement at the end of it.

Even though I had had cancer twice and it was very possible that it would come back, I decided to keep saving for retirement.

That might be wildly optimistic for a cancer survivor. But saving for retirement is always an act of optimism, no matter how healthy you are.

Every time you put money into a retirement account, you’re making the assumption you’re going to be around long enough to enjoy the return on that investment. You assume you’re going to be alive and healthy at age 65 and beyond.

So I put that money into my retirement account, and I’m still saving as much as I can even though my cancer did come back — two more times. And I beat it both times.

My health has been stable for over a year, and I’m still optimistic that I’m going to make it. The optimism helps keep me alive.

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