'Early detection is key'- SBM president quietly battled breast cancer in first months on the job

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

State Bar of Michigan President Julie Fershtman has been attending one bar function after another since taking office Sept. 15.

You'd never know that just two week after her inauguration, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and had a double mastectomy in November.

Now that she's completed her fourth and final chemotherapy treatment, Fershtman is sharing her story in the hopes of encouraging other women to early detection.

"Early detection--that's they key," said Fershtman, a Franklin resident who turned 51 on April 3.

Fershtman had only been president of the Bar for two weeks when her doctor discovered a lump in her breast during a routine exam she had nearly canceled because she was so busy.

She says she was inspired by the death of Kim Cahill, who succumbed to a gynecological cancer in January of 2008, just a few months after her term as State Bar president ended. She was just 47, and served her entire presidency without knowing she had cancer.

Cahill's experience was one of the reasons Fershtman kept her appointment for her annual exam.

"I was going to put it off, but then I remembered Kim's experience," said Fershtman, who had been mentored by Cahill. "I remember talking with my doctor before he began my exam, and I told him about Kim. And I told him I'd just become president, and if I had cancer, I'd want to know it. It was probably 10 minutes later during the exam that he said, `Did you ever notice this bump before?' And everything went from there."

At first, there was disbelief.

"We've all heard about people--friends, relatives, co-workers--who have some experience of breast cancer," she said. "But you can't understand what it's like til it comes to you."

"But then you have to quickly accept it, because from the moment of diagnosis, comes a flurry of doctor appointments, diagnostic tests, and just ways to determine just how far the cancer has spread."

Luckily, the carcinoma was just 1.9 cm and had not spread to her lymph nodes.

Fershtman had a double mastectomy just before Thanksgiving.

The surgeon who performed her double mastectomy told her that she should plan on two to six weeks of down time.

"If there was any time I cried through this experience, that was one of them," she said. "But I was able to come into the office a week and a half after surgery."

By the time the events heated up a month later, she was able to attend every party to which she'd been invited.

"I was focused," she said. "I wanted to get this behind me because I had too many things I wanted to get done. It's not that I didn't follow doctors' orders. I did. But especially during the chemo phase, the fact that I came into the office as often as I could and showed up for bar functions is the type of thing doctors want. They want to see you focusing on trying to keep a normal life. "

And she looked normal, thanks largely to her decision to rent the Penguin Cold Cap, a cold, form-fitting cap worn during and immediately following chemo that prevented the hair on her head from falling out.

"People who saw me at bar functions throughout this experience really had no idea," she said. "It was also good from an emotional standpoint because women really value their hair, and we value individuality from our hairstyles and color. The fact that I was able to keep my hair from falling out really improved my outlook."

Though the chemo didn't make her nauseous, it did make her vulnerable to infections - and she developed a serious one in late January that landed her in the hospital for eight days.

"That was not fun," she said. "I had three bar functions that week, and that was really unfortunate. All my doctors at the hospital were almost laughing at me because I kept saying, `When am I getting out of here? I have a meeting to go to!'"

She learned that staying focused on getting through the experience prevented her from indulging in the natural reaction of self -pity.

Nor did she want anyone else feeling sorry for her. In fact, except for a small circle of people, nobody knew what she was going through.

"I was worried about people telling me how sorry they were, and that wasn't what I wanted to hear as I was beginning to go through this," she said. "And I didn't people to be concerned about the bar, or that it wasn't being well served. Frankly, I don't think people noticed any difference."

So she waited until she was beyond her final chemo before writing about it on her State Bar blog.

"The word isn't so much, `Look what I've gone through,'" she said. "The word is, `Busy women in our profession need to be sure they focus on their health.'"

So her advice is to keep that appointment, just to make sure.

She's still committed to the same things she supported before the diagnosis, although now she's that much committed to exercise and a better diet.

Fershtman wants to make it clear that every woman is different, and no one should use her example as experience as the right way to recover.

"There are plenty of women who can't function during or after chemo," she said. "They need much more downtime than me ... The surgery is very intense, and chemo is an extremely difficult experience. It was for me. The point is to do what you can tolerate."

And keep those doctor appointments.

"You don't always feel you have cancer when you have it," she said. "If I'd waited one year, this cancer would have spread and metastasized into all different places and it would have been a very difficult recovery."

"As it is, I'm still working as hard as I've always worked, helping the Bar."

Published: Thu, Apr 5, 2012

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