Coming Back from Cancer


Coming Back from Cancer

Any life-changing illness is challenging for a lawyer’s practice. A serious diagnosis also has a huge psychological impact. A chronic illness, like diabetes, may be manageable and you will have time to adjust. An urgent care illness, like cancer that requires surgery and months of treatment, will have a far more immediate and debilitating effect.

The impact of illness on your practice will depend a great deal on your business association. Larger practices often have the infrastructure to support a lawyer needing medical accommodation or going on extended medical leave. Solo practitioners do not have that safety net because they are the sole income generator for the practice.

As a solo practitioner, I faced these challenges last January when I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer (“CRC”). My diagnosis was in mid-January and my surgery was about four weeks later.

2019 had been a very successful year for my practice. I was transitioning to providing unbundled legal services and had an advertising campaign planed for January. This all came to an abrupt stop.

There was a week between my colonoscopy and confirmation I need urgent surgery. During that week, nothing really changed. I was willfully blind and detached from the emotional impact of the diagnosis. That changed one morning as I was driving home from court. I started thinking about the “what ifs.” I thought about my wife, Jayne. I was still rational at this point. We have lots of insurance. The investments are in good shape.

It was when I started thinking about my son that the hammer dropped. He was 15. If I died now, I would miss him getting his driver’s license, graduating, going to university, getting married. I had to pull over. I started thinking about how I would leave him. The pain he would feel. I know that pain, as I lost my mother at age 9. Had I done a good enough job for him? Had I prepared him for the world? I was overwhelmed with grief, fear, and anger.

It took me a couple of hours just sitting there on the side of the road facing my fears. What was immediately apparent was that I needed to transition my clients to competent counsel.

In the back of my mind, I was worried about money. Jayne also works in the practice and Butterfield Law is our family’s sole source of income. I had disability insurance through CBIA / Lawyers Financial. This provided some income replacement and business operation expenses.

I knew I would be off work for 6-12 months. I considered looking for a locum, but there was no time to bring someone new on board. I decided to suspend my practice and transfer all of my clients.

In the milieu of confusion, it is very difficult to plan. I found out that, on average, CRC kills 26 Canadians per day. If I had my colonoscopy earlier, I would have likely prevented the cancer, but no one ever really wants a colonoscopy.

It’s embarrassing to talk about, but CRC is preventable, treatable and beatable. If you are over 50, or have a family history of colon cancer, talk to your doctor. Learn the symptoms and get tested.

I underestimated how painful or long the recovery would be. I had broken bones before and had other injuries, but nothing prepared me for this pain. I was also paranoid of addiction and avoided medication.

I underestimated the psychological strain of my illness. A lawyer’s strength is the flexibility of their reason, but you cannot think your way out of cancer. If you face this, be scared, be angry, be selfish. Above all, be honest with yourself. Accept your limits. Reach out to colleagues and friends for help. There are specialized counsellors for you and your family.

I returned to work part-time in September 2020. I will likely be part-time for a year. The surgery wrecked my body. There were complications which are now chronic. I will probably never run a trial again. As I solo practitioner, I have the flexibility to modify my practice.

I am grateful to my wife, Jayne, my colleagues and my friends, who have supported me. Never make the mistake of thinking you are alone. Even if you are a solo practitioner, you are part of the greater community of lawyers. We are here to help.