Tampa’s Jean-Pierre Coy won’t let cancer slow her down
Racked with back pain, Tampa lawyer Theresa Jean-Pierre Coy soldiered through jury selection in her client’s federal drug trafficking conspiracy trial.
After court that afternoon, the 39-year-old breast cancer survivor went back to Moffitt Cancer Center for CT scans.
She was still nauseated from the contrast dye when a nurse called the next morning.
The tests appeared to show that Jean-Pierre Coy’s inflammatory breast cancer had spread to her bones, resulting in a spinal fracture.
“I said, ‘Okay, well, I’m in the middle of a trial, and unless you are going to do something immediately, I’m going to finish this out if it’s the last thing I do,” Jean-Pierre Coy said.
It was far from her final act, but it was typical Jean-Pierre Coy.
Not long after, while a colleague babysat jury deliberations, Jean-Pierre Coy and her family met with the oncologist. The news the doctor relayed was daunting.
The cancer was stage IV. More chemotherapy and radiation could slow the growth, and more surgery was necessary to stabilize her spine. But there was no cure.
“I said, ‘Okay, so what does that mean, how long do I have?’” Jean-Pierre Coy said. “He said, ‘I’m not going to tell you because I don’t know, but if there is anything you want to do in your life, just do it.’”
Jean-Pierre Coy laughs recalling it. Friends know she is the last person who needs to hear “just do it.”
Before three-year-old Thaddeus was born, Jean-Pierre Coy and her prosecutor husband, Travis, endured six miscarriages.
When their son was 10 months old, Jean-Pierre Coy found the lump in her breast and underwent a mastectomy. Chemotherapy and radiation robbed her of her hair, at least temporarily, but the treatment appeared to work.
As far as Jean-Pierre Coy is concerned, the latest diagnosis is just another one of life’s continuous challenges.
“Anybody who knows me knows that I am a fighter,” she said. “I’ve got a three-year-old and I went through a lot to get him, so I truly believe that God did not let me go through all that to take me now.”
There have been some bad days since the second diagnosis, especially before the surgery and the radiation took care of much of her back pain. There were a few agonizing ambulance rides to the hospital.
But lately, friends marvel at her energy and perpetual good humor.
“They can only do what they can do, but I put my faith in a higher power and I kind of just go, day by day,” Jean-Pierre Coy says. “People say I look good, and you know what, I do.”
Since the second diagnosis, Jean-Pierre Coy has continued to represent clients, teach classes at her alma mater, Stetson Law School, and continue her service work with the George Edgecomb Bar Association, where she is a former president.
Colleagues at The Florida Bar’s Solo and Small Firm Section were astonished that she continued to co-chair the section’s annual conference in Orlando in January, its largest event of the year.
“I had help, I had co-chair Cristina Alonso, who was just amazing, and Linda Calvert-Hanson, Lisa McKnight Tipton, and Jennifer Kuyrkendall Griffin, and the Bar’s Ricky Libbert was just an incredible help,” Jean-Pierre Coy says.
It was no small task. After deciding on a theme, organizers had to pick topics and recruit some 20 expert speakers to address a handful of panels, all while enlisting sponsors.
“They said, ‘You don’t have to do this.’ But when I put my mind to do something, I just finish it. That was never an option.”
Jean-Pierre Coy said service work keeps her going.
“I’ve had wonderful mentors in my life, and I love giving back, I love helping, especially with the Solo and Small Firm Section, where we have so many young people coming on board,” she said. “I guess I’m just a Bar junkie.”
Service was embedded in Jean-Pierre Coy, who is fluent in Haitian Creole, at a young age. She remembers being pulled from school at age 8 to accompany her immigrant grandmother to the doctor or state and federal agencies to serve as translator.
Advocacy seemed to come naturally.
“I remember being at an agency with my grandmother, and the person there was very rude,” she said. “I remember I had to set her straight and I said, ‘Listen, she doesn’t speak English and we have to help her.’”
Being the family ambassador made her comfortable speaking to adults, and matured her beyond her years, Jean-Pierre Coy said.
Jean-Pierre Coy has made only a few concessions to her disease. She’s closing her practice, with an eye toward reopening it if the latest cancer treatment arrests the disease.
She’s prepared a will, made plans to transfer power-of-attorney, and created a trust.
“I’m about to go to a funeral home and pre-pay stuff,” she said. “I’m planning, I want my family to breathe and not have to worry about anything else.”
And earlier this year, after first turning down a friend’s invitation, she changed her mind and took a “mental-health break” by flying to the desert kingdom of Dubai.
“Just to see a camel in person was pretty amazing, but to get on a camel and ride it?” she said. “They kind of strongly suggest that I not do it because I had just had back surgery, but I was like, you only live once, so I got on it and I rode it.”
She returned from Dubai just four days before the conference.
Calling herself “an open book,” Jean-Pierre Coy said she’s willing to go public in the hope that other lawyers can learn from her experience.
First, Jean-Pierre Coy says, solo and small firm lawyers should remember the value of maintaining not only health and disability insurance, but “overhead insurance” — coverage that makes sure the lease and support staff get paid.
She let a portion of her coverage lapse, but avoided the worst consequences.
And she wants her colleagues to take the Bar’s emphasis on “health and wellness” seriously. Jean-Pierre Coy said managing stress improves not only health, but quality of life.
“Absolutely, it’s really important,” she said. “I love being a lawyer, it’s wonderful and I enjoy it, but right now, I’ve come to the realization that it’s not the most important thing in my life.”