My life before, during and after cancer
Published in 2019 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine
By Tia M. Zavaras on March 28, 2019
In 2010, I was an associate attorney at a firm where my caseload was extraordinarily intense, and I often worked long hours and weekends. We were part of a small niche of attorneys who litigated high-stakes residential construction defect cases, and for me, it took its toll. I struggled to find balance with three young sons, a husband and a career. I particularly struggled to manage my stress and anxiety. It affected my relationships and my ability to take care of myself until a breast cancer diagnosis forced me to wake up in July 2014.
The week I was promoted to partner at my firm, I went on leave for eight months. My personal and professional lives came to a screeching halt. I stopped working and focused on my family, surgeries and chemotherapy—all while trying to assure my young sons that I wasn’t going anywhere. I was forced to ask myself, “What if I don’t make it?” and I knew that everything going forward had to be different.
While I was preparing for surgeries and treatment, I worried about my professional future. However, my employer was supportive and generous, and my cases were covered without fear that I wouldn’t have a job when I was done with treatment.
The kindness and support extended by fellow lawyers, experts, mediators, judges and staff touched me immensely. My favorite memories include various attorneys coming to my home with home-cooked specialties. One defense attorney baked me a cake and I still have the plate she brought me. I keep “forgetting” to bring it when I know I will see her because it warms my heart to look at it.
This is the type of kindness that is transformative and stays with you, year after year.
Right before I started chemotherapy, our legal community gave me another gift. The wife of a mediator reached out to me to introduce herself. She had been the recipient of a “chemo-coach” and intended to pay it forward by offering to be mine. Throughout my fight with cancer, she coached me in ways that only someone who has been through the turmoil truly understands. I had the privilege of paying it forward to a young lawyer who had recently been diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. She was a young mother of two, a wife, and a part of our legal community. She let me walk shoulder to shoulder with her and our ad-hoc support group of gals. Although she passed away in February 2016, I was gifted a friend with an untenable fight and spirit to whom I may never have otherwise known.
When I came back to work, I realized that I was not the same person I was when I left. My cancer experience had stripped away a veneer that had made me “tough” and made it impossible to ignore the anxiety that I had struggled with my entire life. I knew that if I did not make any changes, my health would suffer again, and I may not get a second chance. I sought professional help. I was taught how to utilize a mindfulness practice that includes meditation and reflection. I refused to dwell on negativity and things I am unable to control. I focused on connecting more deeply with my family, my friends and my colleagues. I looked for meaning and purpose in the work I was doing and found that I was ready for a change.
I summed up all the courage I had to make the most life-altering professional change of my life. I recently reached the first anniversary of a significant career transition to a new firm, Griffiths Law, where I joined as a shareholder. I surprised myself by rapidly expanding my practice to include family law matters. In addition to protecting my clients’ homes, I now protect their children, their assets and their future. It is immensely rewarding. Admittedly, I did not choose a less-stressful area to practice. However, every day I utilize the tools that I have learned to manage the stress and have balance in my life.
My story isn’t that unique but I feel, as lawyers, it is challenging for us to show vulnerability and admit that we are struggling with the same issues that everyone faces. My story is really about the challenge that I faced, the incredible support that I received from the legal community, and the reminder from my colleagues that I was not alone.
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