Communicate, Endure and Live
Tasnima Apol’s journey to beat cancer and open her own firm
Published in 2024 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine
By Amy White on December 13, 2023
When Tasnima Apol was cutting the cake at her 50th birthday party, she looked around the room at her friends, loved ones, even her opposing counsel in the Maryland family bar (“It’s better for everyone involved when we get along and hang out outside of court,” Apol says) and realized of all the people in attendance, the person least likely to be there was herself.
She wasn’t supposed to be. At 34, she was given a death sentence.
Apol, whose parents recognized her affinity for advocating for herself, always had designs on the law. “I think I was good at discussing things, even when I was younger,” she recalls. But the nationally televised trial of O.J. Simpson derailed her dreams.
“I felt that trial made it clear you could buy justice, and I didn’t think I wanted to be a lawyer anymore,” Apol says. “I thought instead I’d go to graduate school to pursue literature and become either an author or a literary critic.”
But that didn’t happen, either. She found herself working in the tech sector, including stints at a NASA-funded archive center helping make data about our planet more accessible online, then at University of Maryland culling climate data, and then at iVillage.com.
“The bottom soon dropped out of the tech sector,” says Apol, who took stock of her life. She was almost 30 and feeling unfulfilled. “I realized, ‘I’m talking to computers to better facilitate communication between people, when I’d rather just talk to the people.’”
With her husband’s encouragement, she pivoted back to her earlier dream and enrolled in law school. “I was happy to be there, but it was an isolating time,” she says. “I was the oldest student, and saw how all the younger students would gather and go to bars, but I had to commute back to my house—to my life and my marriage. I also found myself constantly exhausted, which I thought was just a function of trying to keep up.”
It wasn’t. Studying for the bar, she found out she had been ill for some time.
“I had just given birth to my son, so things were already chaos,” she says. “It turned out I had a tumor in my lung. I was told it was benign, but that I ought to have this very scary lung surgery called a thoracotomy to remove it.”
Except she had been misdiagnosed: It was a malignant tumor, and Apol had stage 4 lung cancer.
“I am 34, I have a very young child, and I have a death sentence,” Apol remembers thinking. “Only 2% of stage 4 lung cancer patients are alive in five years. For quite a while, that’s how we operated: I was going to die. My whole family, my oncologist, everyone thought I was going to die. And it only got more depressing because through the first year, my tumors grew through chemotherapy instead of shrinking.”
After a year of torture for her family as Apol underwent chemo—the vomiting was so bad at times, she says, that her then 1-year-old son would hide from her—Apol got into a lung cancer clinical trial with the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health.
The family was feeling optimistic, until another blow: The lung tumor that turned out to be stage 4 cancer wasn’t. “I was rejected from the lung cancer trial because, as it turned out, I was misdiagnosed twice: My cancer was, in fact, a very rare cancer of unknown primary.” As in, her medical team didn’t know where the origin of the disease was.
“Three percent of all cancer patients have this cancer,” Apol adds. “It felt like, at this point, my oncologist had just given up.”
Armed with new information, Apol underwent a new form of chemo, and had a second thoracotomy. “They essentially cut my ribcage open and took out part of my lungs,” she says. “There were many, many opportunities for death.”
Against astonishing medical odds, Apol has been in full remission since 2020. “A good sense of humor really got my family through this,” she says.
That’s why she could only laugh when her husband said, “Turns out you didn’t die, so why don’t we try this bar exam again?”
So many years had passed that Apol was afraid she was rusty; but she studied and passed it in 2011.
“I didn’t even bother trying to look for a lawyer job because the economy wasn’t great, so I started my own family law firm, and just celebrated my 10th year,” Apol says. “People say this about family law: ‘If you can handle it, it’ll come to you.’ And after everything I went through, family law I could handle.”
She says her survival story is her superpower, and it affects everything from her view of the world to her view of a case. “I truly understand that life is precious, and there’s no point in burning bridges, especially with people who are your family,” she says. “What is the point of being in constant pain and unhappiness? There’s far too much to rejoice in. That’s why I work so hard to get to a place where my clients can communicate, endure and live.”
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