(Published in 2022, H/t SSA’s Ticket to Work)
“Survival instinct shows up in funny ways,” Rebecca said, as she reflected on the day she learned aggressive uterine cancer would cut her life short. She sat quietly on an examining table with her adult children by her side.The room was still and tense while they waited for the doctor to come in with test results.
Rebecca asked for the unvarnished truth on that day in 2017, and that’s what she got. “‘I’m sorry,’ [the doctor] told me. ‘The situation is not good. I will do my very best for you… but you’re not going to make it.’
…Just like that.
Rebecca’s doctor told her it was unlikely she would live another two years. Ordinarily, this teacher and grandmother of two tends to be calm in times of crisis. But this moment was extraordinary, and Rebecca went on to experience a survival-driven amnesia. “It took a minute to register that at age 57 I was going to die,” she recalls. “I cried… and then somehow in the weeks that followed, the death sentence receded in my memory. As I shifted into a focused battle against the cancer, I had no recollection of that part of the meeting with the doctor. My family reminded me much later of everything the doctor had said that day. I forgot what I needed to forget to get through the aftermath of such a prognosis. You never know how you’re going to respond when facing mortality like that.”
Before 2017, Rebecca was one of those teachers with a passion for facilitating students’ self-discovery. She especially enjoyed helping high school students find their talents. “If they trust that you’re doing your best for them, they will give you their best in return,” she says. Rebecca reflected on the 20 years she devoted to young people as an educator and felt good about what she had achieved. Faced with the limits cancer placed on her future, she left work, applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and spent the rest of the year in aggressive treatment. It was a strange period of contradictions. While fighting for her life through surgery, chemotherapy and less conventional regimens, stress that Rebecca believed had been building in her life and driving the cancer’s progression started to lift. She rid herself of a toxic relationship and made peace with letting go of things she could not control. Rebecca leaned into self-care, continuing the healthy lifestyle she had led for most of her life. She spent time outside in the fresh air, continued a modified exercise routine, ate nutrient-rich foods, gardened, hiked, and enjoyed her friends and family. Rebecca says she embraced her will to live along with “God’s will” for her life. “I was not ready to give up on life,” she reflects. “But I prepared to face death if there was no other direction to face. I sent up a prayer at the end of the year asking God to take me or heal me… one or the other. But I prayed I would not be left in limbo.” Rebecca was grateful for the SSDI and Medicare benefits that allowed her to focus on healing. She moved in with her sister, rested, and for the first time in her life, focused on her own well-being.
“I remember taking a shower with no hair… it was so easy. It was oddly liberating. In fact, I remember feeling increasingly free as each week of treatment was behind me.” No one knew precisely what Rebecca’s outcome would be. With treatment concluded and the holidays approaching, she began to feel better. Neither Rebecca nor her family could have anticipated the gift they were about to receive.
When she went for post-treatment screening tests, Rebecca’s medical team found there was no sign of cancer. She thought it was a mistake. Doctors could not explain how her cancer cells responded so dramatically, but assured her the tests did not lie.
It was a new year and Rebecca was in remission. She says she felt like a walking miracle.
New Year, New Career
“When my hair grew back in, I kept my natural color,” she recalls. For Rebecca, this small thing seemed symbolic of renewal and change. She felt like she had another shot at life and vowed to move through the next chapter with gratitude.
Cancer left Rebecca’s future murky, but it never interfered with her desire to work. She was stronger in 2018, looked forward to connecting with a wider circle of people, and felt ready to return to the workforce. She also wanted to try out a new field of work.
At the same time, Rebecca was uncertain about whether she could sustain work and where to begin. Not knowing if or when the cancer would come back contributed to feelings of insecurity and a reluctance to jeopardize her SSDI and Medicare benefits.
While exploring her options, Rebecca received information in the mail about Social Security’s Ticket to Work (Ticket) Program. This free and voluntary program supports career development for people with disabilities who are ready for employment. Adults ages 18 through 64 who receive Social Security disability benefits (SSDI/SSI) qualify. Through the Ticket Program, service providers known as
Employment Networks (EN) and State Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agencies offer a range of free support services to help people prepare for, find or maintain employment. Some service providers specialize in working with select populations;
others offer certain types of services. The program is set up to help people progress toward financial independence through work.
After calling the Ticket to Work Help Line to learn more, Rebecca connected with Brenda Umholtz at Umholtz Consulting, an affiliate of the American Dream Employment Network. Brenda could provide the support she needed to navigate a career transition. They started with benefits counseling to give Rebecca a better understanding of the impact that earnings from work would have on her disability
She learned that Social Security rules called Work Incentives make it easier for adults with disabilities to explore work while continuing to receive Medicare or Medicaid and, in many cases, benefit payments from Social Security. Rebecca would not suddenly lose her Medicare coverage and SSDI payments when she returned to work. She would have time to test her own abilities without having to worry about the sudden loss of benefits. Learning about Work Incentives gave Rebecca the peace of mind she needed to focus on succeeding in a new job while adjusting to her new reality.
There are many Work Incentives designed to ease the transition to work. Because each person’s circumstances are different, job seekers are encouraged to connect with a Benefits Counselor, a trained professional who can help them make informed decisions about employment.
“I was so glad to learn that I qualified for Ticket to Work and Work Incentives,” says Rebecca. “Brenda went above and beyond to help me figure out what would be the right fit for me in this next chapter of my career. She helped me find job leads in line with my qualifications and interests, and was by my side when I needed to talk things through…”
Together, Rebecca and her EN developed an Individual Work Plan (IWP), a detailed roadmap that identified her employment goals along with the activities that would help her achieve them. Brenda worked with Rebecca to update her resume, find and assess job leads, and sharpen her interview skills. At the end of 2018, Rebecca accepted a new job at the American Kennel Club (AKC), inspecting kennels around the country to make sure each is compliant with AKC rules and regulations. The listening skills she developed throughout her years as an educator continued to serve her well as she cultivated relationships in her first year in a new industry. She loves her job and appreciates the sense of stability it has restored.
“I feel like employment is essential to my well-being,” she says. “I really enjoy this work. I’ve connected with so many interesting people and I get to see parts of our country I had not had an opportunity to visit before…”
Rebecca credits the Ticket Program with helping to relieve some of her anxiety about the risks she perceived, navigating Social Security benefits and finding success once again at work. “Brenda was there to answer all my questions and help me stay organized,” she says. “Through the program, my EN gave me the support and encouragement I needed when I was vulnerable. It makes a difference to have someone in your corner during a major transition like this. I feel accomplished, supported and secure again. Ticket to Work and Work Incentives helped me get here.”
Ticket to Work helped Rebecca find her path to a better future. Find yours!