The Fight of His Life: Attorney battled in court as he battled cancer

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Even as attorney Clarence Dass was waging a public legal fight for clients facing deportation, he was waging his own private war with cancer.

By Brian Cox
Legal News

In the last half of 2017, attorney Clarence Dass was fighting fierce and consequential battles on two fronts.

One was a highly publicized legal battle for the life of dozens of detained clients who were facing deportation to Iraq after being caught up in an expansive immigration sweep stemming from President Donald Trump’s ban keeping citizens of primarily Muslim countries from entering the U.S.

The other battle was intensely private. And for his own life.

As Dass advocated tirelessly for his clients’ release from detention, only a few family members and his future wife were aware that he was undergoing treatment for stage 4 colon cancer.

The devastating diagnosis in April 2017 was shocking, says Dass, who has no history of cancer in his family. The timing for a health crisis could not have been worse, both professionally and personally. The young lawyer, after years as an assistant prosecutor in Oakland County, had only recently started his own law firm and was determined to create a name for himself out in the world. And he had just started dating the woman who would become his wife in a year’s time.

“Everything seemed perfect,” says Dass. “And then all of that suddenly seemed in jeopardy.”

In the months leading up to the diagnosis, Dass had suffered from stomach pain that sometimes lasted for days. He noticed a loss in appetite and unexplained fatigue. He began losing weight. It was when he was stricken with a high-grade fever that he was convinced something was wrong. His father, who is a doctor, put him in touch with a gastroenterologist. A colonoscopy found two tumors of significant size.

The 31-year-old attorney faced a torturous road ahead of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. His mind raced with questions and fears about losing his hair, his strength ... whether he would make it at all. Dass was acutely aware that his doctors were using “if,” not “when” as in “if the chemo works” and “if the surgery works.”

At some point he corralled his racing thoughts and remembers concluding, “I can’t control the ‘if.’ I can only control ‘now.’”

Which led him to a second conclusion: “I decided not to succumb to it,” he says.

Only a few days after the diagnosis, Dass went on a second date with Renee, who he had met several months prior. In the lobby of the restaurant, he sat her down and told her he’d just learned he had colon cancer. He couldn’t know how she would react. He also couldn’t know that Renee’s mother was a cancer survivor; she’d been through it before, and her response was unequivocal: “Whatever has to be done, let’s do it,” she said.

“I knew right then that I was going to marry her,” says Dass.

Starting in May 2017, Dass began twelve rounds of chemotherapy across the next 6 months. The regimen would take a massive toll on his body.

“With each round of chemo, I became more and more tired,” Dass later wrote. “The side effects became worse and worse. There were days where I couldn’t get out of bed. Where I couldn’t muster up the energy to respond to a phone call. Where I couldn’t leave my room. My life was becoming slower and slower as the world around me felt like it was getting faster and faster.”

But he never stopped working.

The decision to withhold the diagnosis from his clients and colleagues was difficult at times, but Dass didn’t want his health to be viewed as a weakness or distraction. He didn’t want his clients to doubt his abilities to help them.

“I had people’s lives in my hand,” he says.

The work also gave him a point of focus away from the cancer.

“I knew if I gave up, my clients would suffer and that thought would just make me sicker,” he says. “I knew that helping other people was the only way I could help myself.”

At times over those months of chemotherapy, Dass was “running his law firm from my hospital bed.” He recalls his sister once filing documents for him in court when he couldn’t leave the hospital.

“My family members became my law firm,” says Dass.

As the deportation crisis heated up, Dass came under heightened demand from the media. He remembers doing live interviews while connected to an IV, watching the chemo drip. Once, he did a radio interview from inside the bathroom at the hospital.

The side effects of the chemo began to become evident. Dass’ hair got thinner, his face became swollen from medication. He continued to lose weight. People would tell him he looked tired.

At the end of the chemotherapy, Dass underwent radiation every day for five weeks. At the same time, he proposed to Renee who’d been at his side the last six months and they began planning their wedding for May 2018.

  By the end of the year, Dass had cause to hope that the treatment was working. The tumors had grown smaller, and in January 2018, surgery removed the last of them.

After a grueling 9 months, he was cancer free.

“The clients and my family gave me the strength to get through it,” he says.

Dass’ battle with cancer, the perseverance it required, the inner will it revealed and the resolute support of his family and wife that it drew on, transformed his view on life. As his 33rd birthday approached last September, Dass was compelled to finally share his ordeal with the wider public in a Facebook post, in which he wrote about the transformation.

“My passion for my work, my family and my faith in God kept me alive,” he wrote. “I write you today a healthy, married man, whose blessings are beyond count. I know that I have been given a second chance at life. That my life’s work is to help others and that I can assure everyone in their darkest hour, that the light is not yet out.”

He signed the post, “Cancer Survivor.”

Dass is now active in efforts to raise awareness about colon cancer. In response to his Facebook post, he has been contacted by cancer groups across the country to share his story. He has connected with Gilda’s Club, which is an organization that provides a social and emotional support program for people living with cancer.

He doesn’t intend to let up on his involvement, either.

“I will do whatever I can to give hope to people,” he says. “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
 

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