My Toughest Battle
California Lawyer

My Toughest Battle

July 2012

Jamie Ledezma with Blake

After a few years working as an associate at a business and civil law firm, I moved to the Fresno County District Attorney's office, which offered an unparalleled opportunity to do trial work. I was excited to be in court and pursuing justice.

Then a few months later I learned that I was pregnant. My husband and I were elated at the news, but we were concerned about the time I'd need to take off work for medical appointments and maternity leave. Playing it safe, we decided to keep the news to ourselves for the first trimester.

On February 13, 2007, my husband and I got to hear the baby's heartbeat at a routine doctor's appointment. Everything checked out and looked great until my doctor asked whether I had any questions. "As a matter of fact, I do," I replied. "What is this lump? Is it a milk gland, already?"

Our worst fears were confirmed on Valentine's Day: I had breast cancer. I was 14 weeks pregnant and 27 years old. On that day, every goal and time line I had carefully mapped out for our family and my career were thrown out the window. Now my focus was only on the fight to make sure my baby would be born both healthy and happy; my own health and survival were secondary.

One week after my diagnosis I began chemotherapy. My oncologist prescribed a cocktail of medications that were known to be safe for the fetus because the drugs don't pass the placental barrier. But that reassurance was difficult to grasp while sitting in an infusion chair for six hours.

I also had to deal with so many unexpected issues: disability and life insurance, pre-existing conditions, the lifetime and annual limits of health insurance policies, and coverage appeals. As a former insurance defense attorney, I was better equipped to handle these than the dozens of other young cancer patients I met, such as the single mom who lost her job at a gas station because of her treatment schedule, and the couple who lost their home because of crushing medical costs.

My generous colleagues at the DA's office donated countless hours of their sick leave to cover me during my treatments. And people at my former firm also inundated my family with love and support.

Our baby had six months of chemotherapy with me before his early arrival on July 14, 2007. Blake was born at a healthy 5 pounds, 9 ounces, and with a full head of hair - more than I had, at the time, because of the drugs! A week after his delivery, I returned to my aggressive chemotherapy schedule for another three months. After that came a bilateral mastectomy and a series of six reconstructive and prophylactic surgeries.

When Blake was five months old, I returned to the DA's office. I felt as though I had left work on cancer's terms, and I wanted to go back to work on my terms - and that meant as soon as possible, even though I still wore a wig, faced major surgeries, and had an infant at home.

When Blake turned two, I found myself torn between the demands of work, family, and my health. My husband and I took a leap of faith and decided that I would leave my job to stay home with my son. I spent my days playing with Blake and my nights teaching at local colleges.

After a year of that, I attended a cancer rights conference hosted by the Cancer Legal Resource Center in Los Angeles. I thought it would be a great chance to earn continuing legal education hours. Sitting there talking with 200 other attorneys, advocates, patients, and health-care providers, I realized that I could become a cancer rights attorney, coupling my professional experience as a lawyer with my personal passion for helping others who struggle with cancer.

Now I work as a staff attorney for the Cancer Legal Resource Center, a joint program of the Disability Rights Legal Center and Loyola Law School that provides free information and resources on cancer-related legal issues to patients, survivors, care-givers, health-care professionals, employers, and others nationwide who are coping with the disease.

Today, Blake is a healthy, vibrant five-year-old and a constant reminder about what is truly important.

Jamie Ledezma is a staff attorney at the Cancer Legal Resource Center in Los Angeles.

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