By Jess Coolidge
When I decided to move to Australia to live and work with my brand-new husband at 23 years old, I wasn’t thinking about cancer. There was no part of me that would even think to think of cancer. My family of origin was healthy. Cancer hadn’t touched either sides of my extended family. I, myself, was healthy and happy. As far as I could tell, I had a big future ahead of me.
It was during the three years I lived in Australia that I first discovered symptoms I would later acknowledge to be cancer. When we returned to Canada, our priorities were getting jobs and setting up our lives in Ontario again. A few months later, I would develop the more common symptoms of breast cancer and receive my diagnosis.
In 2019, at the age of 27, I was diagnosed with HER2+ breast cancer, stage 3c. I fully anticipated this would be a defining chapter of my life that I would close following chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and a year of immunotherapy. However, after a year of remission, I received my diagnosis of recurrence. Stage four. This time it came with a prognosis of three or four years.
I felt uniquely prepared for this experience. I grieved the time I thought I would have, but accepting that I would die young wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I shifted to making the most of my short life and living an incredible bucket list year.
I wasn’t prepared for the fight I was in with the government for financial aid. The main cause of my stress, anxiety, and depression over this past year was not due to the physical toll of my treatments or the existential dread that was justified. I did not feel qualified or equipped to navigate and plead my case to the systems that were meant to support me. I was told that due to my terminal illness, things should move quickly in getting the support I needed. Instead, this fight has become a defining aspect to my final years.
To receive Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) you need to work four out of the six years most recent years. Due to living and working in Australia for three of those six years, I was hitting a lot of roadblocks in my application process. The Canadian government sent my application to Australia because there is an agreement between our countries that credits time spent living and working abroad as if it were in Canada. Unfortunately, that agreement is limited to more permanent visas.
It felt like our federal government was surprised to find the gap in legislation for my special case. To me, it was another time when I experienced the alienation and lack of support for a young person with terminal cancer. The correct systems are in place; there’s just an expectation you live a long time before requiring them.
Prior to stumbling on this gap, I wasn’t interested in giving any part of my last years to activism, but I’m not okay with young people (who already have the misfortune of having their life forever altered by unforeseen disability) be further penalized for traveling and living and working overseas. Especially when our federal government encourages it. Specifically with Australia. Canada has an “International Experience” that encourages participants to live and work in Australia on a visa that could disqualify them from later receiving CPP.
I’m looking to have this gap addressed for young people seeking federal financial aid. It is easier to make noise in numbers. I know that this is a very specific case, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced this. And I imagine the number of people this affects will increase. Travel and working abroad is more accessible than ever, which is amazing! Unfortunately, cancer in young people is also becoming more popular. This issue needs to be addressed so it doesn’t have to be such a stressful experience for those with disabilities to receive the help they need.
You can connect with Jess on Instagram @jessiegracecoolidge.