SBM president: Nobody can feel breast cancer ‘until it’s too late’

Two weeks after she was sworn in as 77th president of the State Bar of Michigan, Julie Fershtman went to her doctor’s appointment.

The doctor discovered a lump in her breast.

She later was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. And though the carcinoma was small — 1.9 cm — and had not spread to any lymph nodes, she underwent a double mastectomy per her doctor’s precaution.

It’s now been two weeks since her fourth and final chemotherapy treatment, and she is spreading the message on the importance of prevention and detection.

“No matter how busy women are in this profession, there’s always time to go out and visit your doctor and get tested,” Fershtman told Michigan Lawyers Weekly.

The timing couldn’t have been worse for her once the lump was detected. Her associate, with whom she had worked for four years, had just moved on to another opportunity. And after years of moving up the chain of leadership at the State Bar, Fershtman was about to leave for the Upper Peninsula as part of her presidency tour. There was nothing she could do until she came back, when the more invasive tests would be done.

But, she said, “If there was any time for this to happen, this was the best time.”

Her surgery took place before Thanksgiving, and her chemotherapy began near Christmas, periods when there’s a lull in State Bar activity. She still managed to go to every holiday party she was invited to.

And, by using specially designed ice helmets for her chemo treatment, she didn’t lose any of her hair.

She said that the only time she broke down in tears was when her surgeon told her she’d need six weeks off work. That worry was for naught, as she was back in the office 1 1/2 weeks later. And she said she had a support system at her firm, Foster, Swift, Collins & Smith PC, to cover for some of her matters when she had to go in for diagnostic tests.

She noted that keeping a full schedule helped her stay centered, but she was worried about what people would think of her, especially when she told some people about it.

“Concern is one thing, sympathy is another,” she said. “And even though I kinda kept all of this quiet, word trickled out to them. … But I didn’t want people telling me how sorry they were about this situation.”

But she was surprised when the few people she did tell would pass along a name to her of someone who also had breast cancer. A fellow State Bar member sent her pink ribbon silicone bracelets and pins, and Fershtman plans to pass such accessories onto other women as motivators.

She’s happy to know that “this network of survivors is growing,” and plans to be a part of it for the Susan G. Komen Mid-Michigan Race for the Cure in Lansing on April 29, wearing a survivor’s hat.

“Nobody can feel cancer until it’s too late,” Fershtman said, noting that Kim Cahill, one of her mentors, died of cancer a few months after her term as 72nd State Bar president ended.

“You won’t know you have it, which is more reason to go in and have the test done. It was because I stayed on track and didn’t put this off for a year, when I otherwise could have, that I found the problem. Had it waited a year, I don’t know what my prognosis would have been.”

2 thoughts on “SBM president: Nobody can feel breast cancer ‘until it’s too late’

  1. I am sure that all members of the State Bar and the State Bar community wish President Fershtman the best in her continued recovery and thank her for sharing her story.

    As an attorney who represents a lot of women who have suffered injuries because there was a delay in the diagnosis of their breast cancer, I noted a number of “teaching points” that President Fershtman’s story provides to all women:

    1) While mammograms will miss 10-15% of breast cancers, most of the time they will detect a cancer as small as 4-5 mm, a quarter of the size of President Fershtman’s tumor at the time of diagnosis. Teaching Point: Get your mammogram as frequently as recommended. Early detection saves lives.

    2) President Fershtman’s tumor was 1.9 cm when her doctor discovered it. Teaching Point: While the American Cancer Society no longer argues that women should do monthly breast self exams (BSE), it does recommend that women be familiar with the shape, size and feel of their breasts and to check their breasts frequently for any changes. Many women will be able to feel a lump as small as 1.0 cm depending upon its location and depth.

    3) Every patient is unique and President Fershtman’s double mastectomy for a 1.9 cm tumor with negative lymph nodes is a rare exception to the usual treatment provided for that size of tumor. Teaching Point: Don’t put off diagnosis and treatment out of fear of the potential treatment, including the loss of a breast or both breasts. Breast cancer won’t disappear on its own. Get the diagnosis and treatment that will save your life.

    And, finally, doctors are great but not perfect. If your doctor is reassuring you that nothing is wrong with you even though you have a new breast lump, feel free to get a second opinion from another doctor. I have a lot of clients who wish they did.

    Barry Gates (P25904)
    Immediate Past-President, Michigan Association for Justice
    Ann Arbor, MI

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