Long Walk Back | Page 3 of 3

Long Walk Back

After surviving two bouts of cancer as a teen, Bethesda's Jerry Sorkin thought he was in the clear. Then came the diagnosis that changed his life.

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After the diagnosis,  Sorkin and his family-Lisa; Emma, 11; and Claire, 9-decided to travel. Here they are  in Skagway, Alaska. Photo credit: Daniel Arnold But the drugs worked. So, as he had done after his first diagnosis, Sorkin threw himself into activities, working as sports editor of the Yale newspaper and running a business with a couple of buddies, renting TVs and VCRs to students.

“That’s the way I’m ingrained,” he says. “You keep going. What’s the alternative?”

Still, feeling sick, losing his hair and becoming bloated from the medication was difficult. “I looked like some ’50s old guy with a bad comb-over,” he says.

Sorkin graduated on time and went on to Harvard Law School. His first year, he got to know a student who was in all of his classes—Barack Obama. Sorkin recalls that he and fellow classmates could see Obama’s potential. During class discussions, Obama “always tried to bring everybody together,” Sorkin says. Still, “nobody could see this guy as a future president.”  

Sorkin and Obama lost touch after law school. Sorkin practiced sports law at Covington & Burling in Washington and began dating Lisa, who was working on Capitol Hill. Although they had reconnected after college, when both were working for the same Washington firm, they had remained just friends. This time they bonded while watching Anita Hill testify during the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Three years later, they married.

Not happy practicing law, Sorkin took a job with The Advisory Board in 1996. The company later split in two and Sorkin joined the new Corporate Executive Board, launching and managing different product and business lines that help companies grow. The Sorkins’ first child, Emma, was born in 2000, and Claire followed in 2002.

As the years passed and he remained healthy, Sorkin no longer worried about cancer. He stopped getting annual scans, but was forced to lose weight and start exercising after his cholesterol shot up from bad eating habits.

Then came the lung cancer diagnosis in August 2007. Sorkin began treatment immediately, and he and Lisa focused on keeping their daughters’ lives normal.

As devastating as the diagnosis was, Sorkin knew he could count on his radiologist-brother and other medical friends to help sort out his treatment. His sister-in-law, a child life therapist, could offer advice on dealing with the kids. He had his mother’s example of resilience in the face of hardship, along with friends ready to provide assistance.

Sorkin’s mother, a longtime smoker, died a year after she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Already incapacitated by multiple sclerosis, she refused treatment, Sorkin says.

“I was feeling like everything that had happened in my life prepared me for that moment,” he says of his diagnosis. “Every nonmedical issue was taken care of, so I could do my best to get better and not worry about anything else.”

Sorkin underwent four months of chemotherapy at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. In January 2008, he underwent successful radiosurgery on his brain after tumors were found there. Afterward, his doctor put Sorkin on a new chemo regimen, which has reduced the size of the tumors in his chest and kept the disease in check for more than three years. Sorkin gets an infusion every month or so.

“I’ll do this for another 30 years and be delighted,” Sorkin says. “There don’t seem to be any toxicity problems.”

Still, no one can say when or if the disease will become active again. “It’s a guessing game,” he says.

Life has resumed its day-to-day rhythm since the disease has stabilized. Lisa is a stay-at-home mom, while Sorkin works part-time for the Corporate Executive Board, arranging philanthropy and service activities for employees. He has joined the board of Congregation Beth El, the family’s synagogue in Bethesda, and coaches Emma’s soccer team.

“I have a hard time planning too far ahead,” he says. “But I am really passionate about the things I’m involved in now.”

He and Lisa say his illness has made them more tolerant as a couple. She overlooks his sloppiness, and both are less bothered by petty annoyances. Dealing with a life-threatening illness “forces you to get perspective, to take a larger view of things and let the small things go,” he says.

In February, the Sorkins were invited to the White House for a visit with his old classmate. President Obama had previously sent a note after a mutual acquaintance told him about Sorkin’s illness. Sorkin and the president talked about their kids and caught up on the years since law school. “I got a big hug from the president,” Sorkin says. “It was very special.”

In July, the family traveled to Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. In August, Sorkin and Emma headed to Philadelphia to participate in a bike ride to raise money for cancer research sponsored by the LIVESTRONG Challenge.  

Spending time with his family remains Sorkin’s top priority. Still, as he watches friends progress in their careers, he can’t help feeling wistful.

“I wonder what I’d be doing now if I hadn’t had this detour for the last few years,” he says. “But I feel so incredibly fortunate to have had it. Look what I’ve done over the last four years.”  n

Julie Rasicot lives in Silver Spring and writes the Education Matters blog for BethesdaMagazine.com. To comment on this story, email comments@bethesda magazine.com.

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