For Sonja Schmitz, having her annual mammogram was like going to the dentist every year or having an annual physical. She entered the office with no real concerns. But when they did the sonogram and she saw the results, she started to cry. “It was a horrible day. I just knew.” Even though she had been a biology professor for many years, that’s not why she knew there was a problem. “It wasn’t a brain thing. It was a visceral thing,” Sonja said.
Although the radiologist saw a tumor, he could not confirm that she had breast cancer. However, he performed a needle biopsy right then and there and called her on the weekend with the results. The tumor was malignant and she most likely had breast cancer.
Sonja and her husband Gary went through the Thanksgiving holidays not knowing the specifics of the diagnosis. “I started doing my literature searches and reading everything on the subject, ” Sonja said.
In mid-December, after more testing, her doctor confirmed the diagnosis. Sonja had stage two, triple negative breast cancer. “It was a very aggressive form of cancer,” Sonja said.
“By Christmas, we knew we were going to be in for a hell of a treatment,” Sonja said. She was facing eight months of chemo therapy and radiation. The chemo started a week after her January 9th surgery when they removed the tumor and the sentinel lymph nodes. The chemo lasted until July, then she began radiation every day for 35 days.
The chemo was once a week on Thursdays for four hours. “I never had to go alone,” Sonja said. She would invite a different friend to come each week and they would spend the treatment time catching up. “Some friends even came twice,” Sonja said. “That’s how I got through chemo.”
“I had a lot of” good friends. People came out the woodwork to help, in a good way,” Sonja said.
The treatment made Sonja gain over 30 pounds and made her hair fall out. The worst part was that water tasted metallic and food had to be heavily salted or very sweet for her to taste anything. However, she was grateful that she had no nausea or vomiting.
“I only have good things to say about St. Agnes Cancer Center,” Sonja said However, she and her oncologist did not agree on evaluating her prognosis. Her oncologist did not like to give a prognosis. Sonja said her research revealed that “stage 2 triple negative breast cancer with this treatment had a 93 percent chance that I won’t get cancer again.” Her doctor said, “What if you’re that 7 percent?”
“Can you say that to someone who’s sitting there?” Sonja said. “I hated her from that day on.” She stayed with her until she was done treatment and was in remission, but then switched oncologists.
Sonja was fortunate to have medical coverage through the College where her husband continues to work. “I didn’t have to pay a dime towards cancer treatment,” Sonja said.
By October 2019, she was declared cancer-free.
Making a Career Change
Previous to her diagnosis, Sonja was already struggling with her career. In 2016, she had been teaching for 15 years and was an associate professor of biology at the Community College of Baltimore County. She was feeling burnt out and unsure she wanted to continue.
Sonja let her Department Chair know how she was feeling. “The Chair said she was alarmed by what I said. I didn’t want to try anything new,” Sonja said.
Her Department Chair recommended that Sonja go on sabbatical in 2017. During that time, Sonja retrained herself and earned a certificate in Educational Research Methodology which would allow her to evaluate grant-funded projects.
She spoke with an evaluator who was already in the field. Sonja had worked with her on a previous project and that woman became her mentor. In addition to earning the certificate, Sonja was also able to spend time working in various departments at CCBC focusing on grants and research.
“I loved it!” Sonja said.
After the sabbatical, in the fall of 2018, Sonja returned to her work in the biology department, but was now the coordinator of department.
“When I accepted the position the Dean said I could not retire for at least three years. I agreed. Retirement was not on my horizon,” Sonja said.
“I came back that fall and everything was hunky dory until November when I went in for my mammogram,” Sonja said.
She tried to work from January to June. “It didn’t work. The energy wasn’t there. I had brain fog. At the time, you don’t realize fully how it’s affecting you,” Sonja said. By March, she stopped going to work.
“The College was wonderful. My colleagues were so supportive, “Sonja said. But she knew she needed to leave. The heavy fatigue accompanying the cancer made it impossible to continue and she officially retired in June 2019 at the age of 61.
With her new credentials, she knew there was something else in her future. “I knew I wanted to do evaluation work in my retirement,” Sonja said. She had already been approached by someone to work with her organization. She had a plan.
By the fall Sonja the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a non-profit in D.C. was one of her clients. “I felt good about doing the work for someone like AAUW,” Sonja said.
Her evaluation work is secured by grant-funded projects to help them determine the effectiveness of their work. They require an outside evaluator to work with the team and to document their process. “You’re not there to tell them, you need to this, this and this. Your’re not there to monitor them” Sonja said. “You solicit feedback about the project in the form of surveys and interviews and write a report once a year.”
Sonja not only loves the work, but it has helped she and Gary meet their financial needs.
Between Social Security, her evaluation work and the money her husband was still making teaching at CCBC, they enjoy a comfortable lifestyle in retirement.
Unlike many people, Sonja’s work was not affected by COVID because it is mostly online. “It did affect the colleges and the grants and that piece needed to be documented in my reports,” Sonja said.
Although COVID did not affect her work, it did affect her socially, but in a positive way. “I got to know my neighbors really well. We’ve become very close friends as well as neighbors,” Sonja said.
Her Garden, Her Passion
Sonja’s pride and joy is her garden, which she began in 2004. She hired someone to remove the lawn and put down mulch and put down some perennial plants. Later, she hired a landscape architect to come in and design a garden with native plants. “That’s what I needed. Ever since then, it’s been fun,” Sonja said. As a biologist, she knew it was important to have native plants that the wildlife were already used to. Gary buys the yard art and bird feeders for her garden to help reflect the light and provide focal points.
Gary bought her a little gardening stool when she was in treatment so she could continue to work in the garden and do a little bit of weeding. “I was pleasantly surprised that my garden had matured to the point that taking that spring and summer off didn’t affect it that much.”
“I knew I was the type of person who couldn’t just let go,” Sonja said. “I do enjoy working and having that little bit of structure.”
“I’m going to keep working as long as it’s enjoyable,” Sonja said. She loves the flexibility of the evaluation work. “I can take a break and fold laundry or just hang out with the cats,” Sonja said. She loves being in charge of her own schedule.
One of the other benefits of retirement has been that Sonja has time to cook more and make healthier dinners. “That’s fun.”
However, they also love going out to eat and going away for long weekends.
The highlight of her retirement so far was a trip on a Viking River cruise to celebrate the end of her cancer treatment. She booked it in the fall of 2019 but because of the pandemic they weren’t able to go until 2022. “It did finally happen this past summer!” Sonja said.
“We had the full treatment during the cruise. It was the trip of a lifetime,” Sonja said. They went from Switzerland to Amsterdam after which they flew to Dublin to spend time with their son and his family.
Although Sonja did not enter retirement in the way she wanted, she had an idea of what she wanted it to look like. “Have a plan. Have a financial plan,” Sonja said.
Even if she hadn’t had cancer, Sonja knew that she was not going to continue working at the College much longer.
Please make sure to get your yearly mammogram. It makes a difference. Don’t put it off until it’s convenient. It will never be convenient.
If you have a suggestion for someone I should interview, please email me firstname.lastname@example.org.