When Terri Wingham was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in 2009 at age 30, the life she knew suddenly stopped. She had to give up her lucrative career as a tech industry headhunter in Toronto – “I was really passionate about helping people’s careers,” she says. She had three surgeries and four rounds of chemo. Not surprisingly, she started to re-examine her life. “I really thought that if I end up dying in my 40s, I want to look back and have a really full, meaningful life,” she says.
In 2011, while in remission, but still on long-term disability, Wingham went on a volunteer trip to South Africa and saw people who had lost so much more than she had. When she got back to Canada, she sold her car, gave up her apartment and launched A Fresh Chapter, a charity that facilitates international volunteer trips for people who have experienced cancer. “I went from fancy dinners and a great wardrobe to sleeping on couches and going back to my parent’s house for weeks at a time,” she recalls.
While Wingham’s life changes surprised many of her friends and family, it all made sense to her. Many people, when given a serious health diagnosis, often change their perspective on life.
Focusing on what matters
Naturally, when facing their own mortality, people often question their choices and rethink how they want to spend the rest of their years. Wingham knows that many, like her, want to give back and help others, which is why she started her organization. She offers volunteer opportunities of between two weeks to six months. While some of her Clients have full-time jobs, others, she has found, have no interest in returning to their previous roles.
Wingham decided to not go back to her previous career because she worried that she wouldn’t be able to get time off to care for herself or do the many things she now wanted to do, she says.
Get help with your money
Of course, one of the drawbacks of making a life change is the effect on your money. It can be financially difficult to shift careers, travel the world or start a volunteer organization. Wingham’s life change has certainty affected her financially, as she only draws a small salary from her organization.
Fortunately, she saved a lot in her first career and she did tap into her RRSPs as she launched her new charity. Now that it runs in five countries, and with a full-time employee to help her, she’s hoping to increase her salary enough so she can start saving again. “It’s important for me to save and invest and build back up what I’ve lost,” she says.
People should meet with their advisor to assess which expenses workplace programs or personal insurance covers. They can also discuss how to make a potential life change work.
“Money or having the right insurance will never take away the illness. But it will certainly give you the time to focus on your recovery,” says Darren Ulmer, a Sun Life Financial advisor. “We spend our health to create our wealth only to find out that when our health fails, we often do not have enough wealth to support us. That’s why working with a financial advisor can help you plan for unexpected medical conditions and give you piece of mind.”
As trying as her experience with cancer was, Wingham is more satisfied than ever, despite not having many possessions or the large salary she had before. “Even on my toughest day, after a hard day of travel, of running the business,” she says, “it’s much better than a day of chemo.”
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