State supreme court justice battles cancer without missing a day

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by ROBERT MAK / KING 5 News

KING5.com

Posted on October 7, 2011 at 8:59 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 7 at 9:01 PM

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Washington State Supreme Court Justice Mary Fairhurst believes in miracles. Fighting cancer and determined to beat the odds, she's sharing her experience publicly for the first time.

When most people are eating breakfast, Mary Fairhurst begins her day at a radiation clinic.

Every day for seven weeks, she's received radiation for a tumor in her lung.

"Actually, it's a time I use to meditate and just be calm and imagine myself being healed," she said.

Only a half-hour later, Fairhurst is off and running, trading her patient gown for the black robe. Fairhurst takes pride in the fact that she hasn't missed a day of work. For two years, her life has been chemotherapy, radiation -- all while tackling the most challenging court cases in our state.

"I have had the side effects, but they have medication to address those, and so only once did I have to leave the bench to throw up," said Fairhurst. "I felt badly I had to leave, I sent a note down to the chief that said, 'I'll be right back,' and I was gone. I threw up and I came back and watched those five minutes of argument."

Fairhurst grew up in a Catholic family, the oldest of seven kids. Teachers told her she'd be a good lawyer.

"I went, and I just loved it," she said. "I loved law school, I can remember sitting in a class my second year, administrative law school and having the feeling come over me this is exactly what I was supposed to be doing."

Fresh out of Gonzaga Law School, she came to the State Supreme Court as a clerk for Chief Justice Williams, then Justice Goodloe. After a couple years, she left for the Attorney General's Office, telling her boss she had a plan.

"He asked, didn't I want to stay forever, didn't I want to be his clerk forever, and I said, 'No, I want to be justice someday, so I have to go be a lawyer,'" she recalled. "Even then I knew it would be a dream to be here."

Fairhurst worked 16 years in the Attorney General's Office before winning a statewide election. It was historic -- the first time, the high court had a majority of women.

Colleagues and observers describe her as one of the most approachable, genuine people in the courthouse. She insists, that people call her Mary, not justice.

In January 2009, as Christine Gregoire gave her second inaugural address, a legislative photographer snapped a picture of Fairhurst in the audience after just recently undergoing surgery. After months of stomach pain, doctors discovered cancer in her colon.

"I was in the hospital over Christmas, purposely, so I wouldn't have to miss court, and it was the day after Christmas that they came into tell me," she recalled. "I was surprised, but we have a lot of cancer in my family. My mom died of breast cancer, my grandmother died of breast cancer, a number of relatives have died of other cancers, so I was startled and surprised, but I was just like, 'What do we have to do?'"

For the next six months, she endured chemotherapy, going in late on Fridays so she could recover over the weekends. But early this year, a CAT scan revealed a tumor was in her lung. Fairhurst had to return to chemotherapy and radiation for another six months, with no assurances the cancer won't come back.

"They expect it to show up, but, it might not," she said. "I were not healthy, which as you can see I'm quite healthy, would be six months, otherwise, it would be two years. But people are alive nine or ten years later."

The cancer had moved from one organ to another. She had stage four cancer, considered terminal.

"We're all going to die someday, and I have the blessing of appreciating every single day," said Fairhurst.

In six weeks, Fairhurst has been recognized six times, by schools and professional groups, including the bar association. She understands that people are already trying to peg her judicial legacy, but it may not be easy. She backed Republican Rob McKenna's authority to challenge health care reform and has often sided with police and prosecutors. Yet Fairhurst has staked out liberal positions on some social issues. When the court ruled in favor of traditional marriage, she minced no words in her dissenting opinion, saying that it was "blatant discrimination" against gays and lesbians.

As she fights cancer for the second time, her friends have been wearing purple bands inscribed, "Believe in Miracles." Fairhurst is swimming in a sea of positive thoughts, but there are times of reflection.

"I think my legacy really is that I love the law, and I loved and recognized how it affected everyone and I really cared about the people...it's the people that make up the government," she said. "We are the government. And we have a responsibility to make government as good as it can be."

Fairhurst is looking forward to November 2, her last scheduled day of radiation treatment. After that, she will wait and hope the cancer doesn't come back. In the meantime, her term on the supreme court ends in 2014. With no doubt, Fairhurst said she's running for re-election.

"If I were to die, I would just know that I'd done what I was suppose to do," she said.

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