Breast-cancer survivor sues law firm for wrongful termination

Breast-cancer survivor claims elite law firm fired her after taking medical leave in new suit.

This article in the Daily News resonated with me. Because I, too, had breast cancer. It was diagnosed late 2001, I had surgery in January 2002, didn’t need radiation or chemo, recovered completely. And in September 2003 was fired.

I had been wrongfully terminated. But my causes of action, had my situation not been settled as it was, would not have included the cancer.

I am greatly empathetic toward this lawsuit, although I think it might be difficult to prove. I hope the plaintiff has kept the sort of careful, detailed notes about incidents and things said to her, about the way she was treated at her law firm—the sort of things I’ve been advising plaintiffs to do here on Sidebar, in the Uh-Oh stage of a lawsuit, when you suspect you’ll have to sue.

In my case I doubt I could have proved wrongful termination because of the cancer. But my experiences and after-the-fact perceptions may be helpful to any woman in this situation.

Just after my surgery, I got a call from a woman who had had breast cancer. I was startled at what she said. After she was diagnosed, she did not tell anyone at her office about her cancer. She scheduled a vacation, announced it to her employers, and used that vacation time for surgery.

Why, I wondered? Because, she said, she feared that if her firm knew about the cancer, they would fire her. I was appalled that she had felt a need to hide such a major and distressing event from the people she worked with. Isn’t an office a sort of family? And I was dubious (although I didn’t tell her this) that she would have been—or could have been, for that matter—fired for having had cancer.

Was I being naive? I didn’t think so: it is my character to be entirely open about such things, and indeed the day I received my surprising diagnosis, I told everyone in the office.

Then and afterward they were wonderful to me. And I, in turn, was wonderful to them: I did not and still don’t regard cancer as something I fought, nor do I see myself as a survivor. I wasn’t marching around in war mode, running races while wearing ribbons. I had cancer, it was caught early, I chose a surgical option that would remove any future possibility that I’d have to hear those words, “You have cancer” again. And I had terrific physicians.

True, I’m an unusually optimistic person who sees life through a madcap comedy filter. So I was funny about it the whole process (which, to be truthful, was really fascinating and sort of entertaining). So much so that a friend said to me, “You make it sound as if everybody should do it!”

But here’s what I think now: men are not solid citizens when it comes to a woman’s breasts. And when a woman says she’s going to eliminate the fat tissue in which cancer can grow and exchange it for brand new and remarkably perky sea-salt-filled items … well, if men stared at my breasts before—and they did—their regard was now perhaps more obsessive, and queasy.

Is it something to do with the Mother thing? Don’t know. But I do understand that men are not psychologically equipped to share an office comfortably with a woman who has had her breast tissue removed.

And so yes I do now think that my cancer figured into my being fired, although I doubt the men who did the firing had enough insight to recognize it.

It all turned out well for me, though. I want Elly Rosenthal’s lawsuit against the big law firm Proskauer Rose to turn out well, too. For Ms. Rosenthal, for all the working women in this country, and especially for that woman who felt she couldn’t tell her bosses that she had breast cancer. And she never did.

 

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