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It’s not the kind of thing you put on your firm biography, next to Phi Beta Kappa and the bar associations and the brilliant judges you clerked for. When you have the narrative of your life mapped out like a PowerPoint presentation, cancer threatens to throw it all off track. Lesley Pate, a fifth-year associate at Venable, is the kind of achiever who, until last August, seemed to have a game plan for everything. One evening a week for her friends, one for her boyfriend, one for her tap-dancing class, one for herself, and one to work late. Pate traveled in Europe for three weeks after she graduated from college because she “wanted to make sure I checked that box.” And then, pow. The D.C. lawyer was looking at Stage 2 colon cancer. Suddenly she was forced to reconfigure the game plan. When lawyers face serious illness, they ask the same questions that many other hard-working people ask: Do you tell your colleagues? Do you tell your clients? Will you be able to work through chemotherapy? How much time will you take away from the office? And, of course: Will you survive? But — no surprises here — lawyers also try to take on cancer the same way they handle other bumps in the road. They do vast amounts of research, they make some tough decisions, and they hammer away at the problem without breaking stride. I’LL WAIT Pate had just turned 29 last summer when she started feeling unwell. She had a colonoscopy because she knew something was wrong — she couldn’t eat, and she couldn’t stand the pain. When the test revealed a mass embedded in her colon, her reaction was immediate. She asked the doctor, “What are you waiting for? I’m not leaving here [the hospital]. Can you operate tomorrow?” When the doctor hedged and said she needed to line up a surgeon, which might take some time, Pate’s response was, “I’ll wait.” And it worked: The surgeon operated the next day. For a moment, cancer was just one more task to check off Pate’s to-do list. She says she figured with a Friday surgery, she’d be back in the office by the middle of the following week. “I did not realize the magnitude of it,” she says dryly. Even with a diagnosis of Stage 2 colon cancer — cancer stages are determined by the size of the tumor, its location, and its effect on the lymph nodes — Pate reacted as a lawyer. She conducted a “cost-benefit analysis” on different varieties of chemo and the usefulness of radiation. She talked to eight different doctors and got eight opinions. That mix of thorough research and dispassionate weighing of options is “what you learn in law school,” she says. While she was recovering from surgery, Pate scaled back slightly, working each day from 10 to 4. But later she worked full-time through her chemo treatments. “It was a way for me to take control of my life,” she says. “I just function better when I’m working full-time.” Robert Kinberg had a similar full-steam-ahead reaction to cancer. A 59-year-old partner at Venable, he was also diagnosed with Stage 2 colon cancer last summer. He also fought it with surgery followed by chemotherapy. And Kinberg also continued to work what he calls “normal days.” Today Kinberg talks about his cancer and chemo with the kind of casual disengagement that people tend to have when they’re talking about someone else’s illness. When his hair started to fall out from the chemo, he says, he just shaved his head completely. Anyone with cancer has to ask himself just how public to go. For lawyers, that question gets coupled with a second one: Will it affect business? Will clients start to wonder whether you’re at the top of your game? Kinberg decided that while he wouldn’t make a grand announcement to the firm, he also wouldn’t shy away from telling people. “I decided there was no reason to keep it a secret,” he says. “It’s harder to keep a secret.” But he took a slightly different approach with clients: Since many of his patent clients are overseas, questions were less likely to come up, and he says he didn’t feel the need to volunteer the information. Pate says that if Venable had asked her not to talk about her illness, she would have kept quiet. But the firm didn’t do that. So Pate, who practices labor and employment law, talked to her clients about her cancer and found that it turned into a way to connect with them on a personal level. “Their support has been amazing,” she says. “I’m truly blessed to have support all around me.” In fact, Pate is so open about her illness that nearly every day she wears a bright blue star-shaped necklace that is the symbol for the Colon Cancer Alliance, along with a similar colon cancer awareness bracelet. In March she participated in — and persuaded Venable to help support — the Scope It Out 5K race in Washington, with proceeds benefiting the Lombardi Cancer Center, the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation, and the Colon Cancer Alliance. Both Pate and Kinberg say that Venable fully supported them during their treatments, telling them to do what they needed to do and take the time they needed to take. Of course, the firm wasn’t taking any big chances by not pushing hyper-productive lawyers. Pate’s younger colleagues told her that they shuddered to imagine her energy level when she wasn’t receiving chemo, since she was so efficient even when she was. ILLNESS AS WEAKNESS Other lawyers, though, are terrified to tell their firms that they’re sick, says Ellen Ostrow, a life coach for lawyers. Illness, to be blunt, is a sign of weakness. One lawyer who came to Ostrow said that she didn’t actually tell her firm she had cancer until she had to take off months for treatment. And she worried, says Ostrow, “that she couldn’t possibly bill the hours” she normally billed when she returned from her leave. But Ostrow encouraged her to be open with the firm, and it turned out that the firm was “very generous.” In fact, Ostrow says, her illness forced that lawyer to rethink her whole approach to work. She had been the kind of colleague who never turned down a work request. “Anytime anybody in the firm would say, �Can you help me with this?’ she’d say yes,” Ostrow notes. But her doctors said that recovery from cancer depended on slowing down and reducing stress. She turned to Ostrow to help her achieve a new balance — to fit in exercise, eat properly, and take better care of herself. The woman told Ostrow, “I’ve just finished my cancer treatment, and I don’t want to die. I already see myself slipping back into my old habits.” That’s a lesson Pate has also taken seriously. She says that work no longer stresses her out, and she’s decided to hire a house-cleaning service so she never has to worry about those trivial tasks again. Would that maid service were the only reminder of her ordeal. Sadly, a serene spirit doesn’t always ward off the nightmare. Last month, just weeks after she finished her last chemo treatment, CAT scans revealed a suspicious mass that, Pate says, is probably a recurrence of the cancer. At such moments, the details of time management take a back seat to more fundamental questions of what we value and how we want to spend our days. Perhaps that’s the reason we responded so strongly to the story of Elizabeth Edwards, wife of presidential hopeful John Edwards and also a lawyer. Edwards too was dealt a lousy hand: She’s facing incurable Stage 3 breast cancer. But earlier this year she announced that she planned to stay on the campaign trail. Many people criticized Elizabeth Edwards. What about spending time with her children? Shouldn’t she be putting her affairs in order? Edwards’ response: She is spending more time with her children, and she is putting her affairs in order. But, speaking at a press conference, she compared her disease to other long-term illnesses that people manage over a long period and declared that her husband’s campaign also matters. In short, Edwards has reserved the right to make her own decisions about how to live in the face of cancer. But, news anchor Katie Couric protested, “Here you’re staring at possible death — “ Edwards cut in: “Aren’t we all, though.”
Balancing Act, a column exploring the lives of women in the law, appears in Legal Times each month. Debra Bruno can be contacted at [email protected].

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