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Legal eagles soar beyond breast cancer

ImageA wonderful thing happened earlier this month to Milwaukee family lawyer Amy L. Shapiro.

She realized, a few days into October, that she’d forgotten about the anniversary of her breast cancer diagnosis. In previous years, she’d anticipated that date, Oct. 11, 1996.

She’s not alone. Nine cancer-free years after Milwaukee lawyer Ann Devine’s diagnosis, she rarely thinks about her third year in law school, when she was stricken.

Likewise, Wisconsin’s former attorney general, Peggy A. Lautenschlager, made a conscious decision, almost immediately after getting her breast cancer diagnosis in August 2004, not to fixate on the disease. She can’t even recall the exact date of her diagnosis.

That’s because these tough women don’t define themselves as victims of, and/or ultimately conquerors over, a potentially deadly illness. Rather, they define themselves, first and foremost, as lawyers and mothers/wives/daughters/sisters, rather than “breast cancer survivors.”

Yet, they’ll never forget, and they’ll tell their stories to anyone who’ll benefit from listening. Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Wisconsin Law Journal asked them to do just that.

The Diagnosis

Devine had almost completed a summer internship with a large Milwaukee law firm. Life couldn’t have been much busier, when everything changed with her diagnosis in August 1999. She had felt a lump during a monthly breast self-examination; a mammogram didn’t detect the stage-one tumor. A biopsy soon confirmed her suspicions, followed by a lumpectomy.

Shapiro, too, found her lump via a self-exam. She had a mammogram and an ultrasound, neither of which detected any cancer. Although she wanted to believe the doctor who dismissed her fears, her intuition told her to persist. She obtained a second opinion, and a biopsy revealed stage-three cancer that warranted an immediate mastectomy. She was 41, and her sons were just 3 and 7.

“I was relatively young and healthy. I had no symptoms. I really felt betrayed by my own body,” she recalls.

As for Lautenschlager, she’d faithfully had her yearly mammograms since turning 40. Her cancer was detected via a mammogram. The news was a sucker punch, but she immediately decided to do whatever was necessary to defeat it, while proceeding with her usual obligations. So, on the day of her lumpectomy, she first put in a half day’s work.
people deal with a cancer diagnosis in many different ways. At the other end of the spectrum was Shapiro, whose immediate thought after getting that devastating news was to quit her job.

“I told them [my law partners] that my life and my children were more important to me.

But, I was working with a wonderful group of people, who said, ‘No. Let’s take a deep breath here. Let’s figure this thing out.’ We decided I’d take the six months off instead.”

Shapiro wrapped up a few cases, and her law partners, Lee Calvey and Pam Lara, took on the rest. They notified her clients, and Shapiro then proceeded with six months of chemotherapy with experimental drugs.

For her part, Devine had been preparing for an evaluation, where the topic of a post-law school career with the firm was likely to be raised. After the diagnosis, she knew her only response had to be, “No, thanks.” Although she’d learned much and enjoyed the job, even before the diagnosis, she’d questioned whether she wanted to give the time commitment that large-firm practice requires. Once cancer entered into the equation, with its possibility of significantly diminishing that time, working long hours just didn’t seem to fit into her plans anymore.

The Treatment

Shapiro tried to keep things as “normal” as possible for her sons during her chemo, while leaning on friends and family. Thankfully, she’d had the foresight to purchase disability insurance before the diagnosis.

As for Devine, she says that once classes started, she began her chemotherapy every Friday for the entire semester. She probably couldn’t have been more disheartened and scared that first time — until she talked to another patient in the waiting room. That young woman was waiting with two pre-schoolers, and she mentioned that she was a single parent.

“I just cannot imagine what was going through her head at that time, dealing with cancer with two small children in tow,” says Devine. “Anytime I felt like complaining after that, I just thought about her.”

Devine, who’d spent several years in business and teaching before law school, says that time also served her well in coping with cancer.

“In the business world, I’d been faced with problems, and I just rolled up my sleeves and solved them. I’d learned to deal with problems, rather than complain about them,” she recalls

Lautenschlager took a similar approach. She underwent 16 weeks of chemotherapy and worked full-time throughout, taking off just one day. She then proceeded with 7 1/2 weeks of radiotherapy, losing no work throughout, although she did have to creatively re-arrange her schedule.

“Work was like therapy to me,” says Lautenschlager, now with Lawton & Cates S.C. in Madison. “Instead of focusing on the uncomfortable prickly feelings in my feet from the chemo, or the third-degree burns on my chest from the radiotherapy, I thought about work.”

Devine decided during her chemo to return to clerking. Cancer was the elephant in the room when she interviewed with several firms wearing a wig. She nonetheless found a position with De Mark & Kolbe in Racine, which was very accommodating. Once the spring semester started, Devine began receiving daily radiation therapy for two months, followed by months of physical therapy.

Lautenschlager also lost her hair during the chemo, but opted against wearing a wig, scarf or hat. “I wasn’t making any kind of political statement by it. I just don’t like polyester,” she says, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “But also, most days, caring about trying to look good, on top of the chemo, just seemed like too much trouble. I tend to be a pretty matter-of-fact and upfront person anyway. Of course, some people criticized me for me for that. But I also got letters from other cancer patients, thanking me.”

The Aftermath

Once Shapiro was pronounced cancer-free, she returned to work four days per week — not so much because she was too ill or tired to work a full week, but because she decided to start enjoying life more, take better care of herself, and travel more often. “You’ve beaten cancer; you can do anything,” became her new motto.

“It gave me a heightened awareness, that we’re all on this boat, and our footing is not exactly stable. But, what really helped me finally put it all behind me was when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer five years later. I decided then that I needed to be strong for her sake. That’s when I finally stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“My mother’s fine now,” she adds.

In fact, Shapiro has returned to putting in
five full days of work; she’s now a shareholder at Hawks, Quindel, Ehlke & Perry S.C. Moreover, one of her sons recently dogged her about when the travel bug would disappear; he’d like to have a little more time at home.

Devine has experienced a similar return to normalcy. In spite of all the adversity of her third year of law school, she graduated in the top 25 percent of her class — she had been in the top 15 percent before cancer. She continued on with De Mark & Kolbe as an associate.

Two years later, she decided to return to the business world, as the executive director of Pi Sigma Epsilon, a nationwide sales fraternity based in Milwaukee.

“They were great to me at the law firm, but I just found the practice of law to be too isolating. I wanted to be working more closely with other people, and making more connections,” Devine says. “And if there was one thing cancer had taught me, it was that I needed to be doing things under my terms.”

Devine also began volunteering for ABCD, or After Breast Cancer Diagnosis, a Milwaukee-area organization that pairs breast cancer survivors as mentors to newly diagnosed patients, for information and mostly support. Devine served as a mentor, and continues to donate her time and money to that group.

The Big Picture

As expected, Lautenschlager says beating cancer changed her.

“Like any traumatic event, it makes you think about whether you’re making full use of every day,” she says. “But people deal with all kinds of adversity. For me, the biggest challenge was not getting too self-absorbed, by constantly reminding myself that others have survived much worse.”

She’s also not pleased with the low priority given in recent years to federal funding for cancer research. “The fact is that the incidence of breast cancer has been increasing. But every few years, the numbers level off, so it’s easily forgotten.

“I think as a nation, we’re not doing very well in this, and it’s twofold: We’re not making the commitment in terms of research dollars, and we’re unwilling to examine some of the other potential factors that might be causing cancer. With lung cancer, for example, it’s easy to say that smoking is the number one cause and that smoking is bad, rather than looking at the potential roles that air pollution, particulate matter or preservatives in food might be playing.”

Shapiro says she’s not moved by pink ribbons, and has great disdain for businesses that feign concern, but actually profit off the search for a cure. She’s also slightly uncomfortable with the term “breast cancer survivor” — “because it gives too much power to the disease.”

In addition, Shapiro has little respect for health insurance companies that sometimes don’t cover basic diagnostic procedures, when, on top of the human cost, treatment for cancer in its advanced stages can be extremely expensive, compared to if it’s detected in its early stages.

Devine also becomes upset when she hears of women who have trouble obtaining insurance coverage for diagnostic tests, such as MRIs. She knows from her own experience that mammograms can be very imprecise, not to mention being extremely uncomfortable. She cautions that women cannot rely solely upon mammograms, because in her case, that could’ve been deadly.

It’s not easy to speak publicly about something so personal. But Devine will do it, if it means one more woman will commit, or re-commit, to doing monthly breast self-exams.

It’s a task she compares to working out, because it’s easy to make excuses not to do it, yet it’s so important to do.

One comment

  1. It’s tacky to comment on your own story, but I just need to say that Virginia Pomeroy is dearly missed!

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