On February 13, 2012, I had my fourth cancer related surgery in five years. Mary is from Venus and Tom is from Mars. Justice Fairhurst and I deal with adversity differently. She likes to go to the mountain and gather all of her many friends and family for support. I prefer to deal with adversity in private. I slip into my cave and focus solely on what I must do to overcome the challenge before me. Well-wishers, sympathy cards, and similar commotion are just distractions from the tasks on which I must focus.
I managed my previous three surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation while on the court without missing a day of oral argument. There may have been days when the man in that black robe felt awful; but for me, work is therapy. Except for my family, colleagues, and co-workers at the Temple of Justice (who have been extremely supportive), I don’t think a lot of people knew I had cancer. It is not that it was a secret or that I didn’t want anyone to know. I am a public figure and I have never tried to keep my health a secret. On the other hand, I saw no reason to publicize what seems a private matter to me.
This time is different. I have mouth cancer. They tell me it is from enjoying a cigar every evening for 20 years. This time, there was a fairly large tumor on my tongue. They took about one half of my tongue and grafted tissue from my thigh onto my tongue. The grafted tissue is called a flap. It doesn’t function as a tongue. Its purpose is to block my airway when I swallow and perhaps assist in helping me speak. It is now six weeks post surgery; I swallow with great difficulty and only thin liquids. My swallowing cannot keep up with the saliva I produce and rather than drool, I mop my mouth with a rag. I am on a feeding tube. About 10 days ago, I began to speak but people can only understand about one-half of what I say. After they have been around me for a while, they understand more.
I will speak again and I will eat again. Where there is a will there is a way and I will. My colleagues on the bench have been marvelous. I was in the hospital for 10 days and did miss 2 days of oral arguments. Although most everyone, including my doctors, thought I should take it easy, I felt I was the person elected by the people to decide cases and I wanted my voice heard. I returned to the bench with a trachea hole in my throat the size of a quarter. During oral arguments, I have used a computer and Instant Messaged my questions to Justice Stephens who has been my voice and asked my questions for me. When the nine of us deliberate, I have keyboarded my thoughts and the words appeared on a large TV screen for the other eight justices to immediately see. The court set up a Skype account and I attended some administrative meetings in Olympia via Skype so I could see doctors in Seattle the same day. I could see all of the other justices, they could see me and again, I would Instant Message my thoughts, which appeared on the TV screen.
Talk about accommodating a person with a disability, the Washington Supreme Court has bent over backwards to help me. I am so lucky in so many ways. Eighty percent of the people in the world do not have electricity or running water in their homes. Only a small fraction of the world’s population has access to the health care I enjoy. I was first diagnosed with cancer in 1998 and if I lived in most places in the world, I would likely have been dead years ago. I see so many others, particularly the young, who have far worse conditions. I am feeling a little stronger and better each day. The doctors coo about how well I am doing and how fast I am healing but it sure seems like slow sledding to me. I am adjusting to the fact recovery will take a long time. I have swallow and speech therapy ahead of me. It will be slow but I will get better. I do not want your sympathy but welcome your understanding and support.