Resilience: Weathering The Survivorship Vortex With Clients Living With Cancer

By Joseph Connors, Esq.
Professor Connors is the Director of Albany Law School’s Health Law Clinic, a medical legal collaborative supported in part by the New York State Department of Health, Cancer Support and Survivorship Initiatives

The recent sub-zero Polar Vortex inspires me to focus this month’s blog entry on something our clients here at Albany Law School’s Clinic & Justice Center know so well: Resilience.

Our second and third year law student Health Law Clinic interns work with individuals who are at various stages of surviving cancer. Each semester, before we meet our first clients, we discuss the importance of learning clients’ stories and developing action plans and advocacy narratives focused on both the client’s legal and non-legal needs.  Typically, identifying, appreciating the context of, and prioritizing clients multiple needs requires two to three client/student meetings, during which clients at some point share their feelings upon first receiving their diagnosis.  These shared stories have repeated themes: “Being hit by a ton of bricks!,” “Being blown away!” “Devastating!”

The closer the student/client advocacy relationship becomes, the more our interns come to appreciate the resilience of our clients in surviving the unpredictable and cold vortex of diagnosis. Their clients still often experience “more than bad” polar days with emotional distress, fears, and doubts.   But, somehow, they also adjust and move forward.  Many long term clients credit their success to the support of loving families, friends, and compassionate medical care teams.  Others point to their ability to stay focused on future goals, even in the face of cold winds of new complications and obstacles.  Side effects from medications. Health setbacks. Mounting unpaid bills due to loss of income. Lack of parenting energy. Too many forms to fill out for benefits.  Denials and bureaucracies. Whirlwinds of uncertainty about future health care, child care, and estate care planning. Discrimination when they return to work.

Law interns realize that they are not detached from their clients and often need to be resilient themselves.  They bring a different set of stressors with them.  Four hours of classes per day.  Another eight hours of studying. Moot court, law review, and student organizations.  Learning a new legal vocabulary. Being separated from family and old friends. New relationships. Fitting in. Worrying about finding a summer job.  Paying the rent. Networking for a long-term job.  Exams. And helping their clinic clients. These competing demands can be overwhelming.  Both law student and lawyers experience burnout and secondary trauma.

The optimistic hope remains in the lessons of our clients who are experts in persevering. We, like our clients, become more resilient, more able to weather the polar vortexes of adversity when we:  accept some stress and emotional pain as inevitable and embrace it; rely on the support of family and friends, and this growing advocacy network for help when necessary; break down overwhelming problems with specific action oriented goals; and continue to reflect on our experiences as a matter of healthy habit.  Happy 2014 to all!

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