Joshua Sussberg is goal-oriented. Once he sets his sights on a target, no obstacle can sidetrack him. Even if that obstacle is a rare form of lymphoma.
On April 26, 2016, the Kirkland & Ellis partner was diagnosed with acute T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma and immediately pivoted from living life as he knew it to being a full-time cancer patient for eight months.
An experienced restructuring lawyer, the 39-year-old Sussberg is no stranger to distress. During his first stint of treatment directly following his diagnosis, he began setting goals for when he would return home, get back into the gym and return to work.
“I really like what I do. And even more, I like who I do it with,” Sussberg said. “I miss doing that if I’m not there … I wanted to get back.”
Kirkland was supportive of Sussberg in his fight for a clean bill of health. “Everyone said we want you to focus on getting back, because we know you’re going to get back,” he said.
Jennifer Sussberg, Josh’s wife and a former lawyer, said that he was positive from the moment he entered the hospital. “I think Josh became an inspiration to everyone … He finished treatment [on] Dec. 22 and had his head right in the game,” she said.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Sussberg, who has been busy this year pursuing reorganizations for bankrupt clients like children’s clothing retailer The Gymboree Corp. and women’s fashion house BCBG Max Azria Group LLC, has always had plans on his mind.
“I’ve always been someone that’s goal-oriented and focused, because I think that if you don’t set sights on specific things it’s easy to sweat,” he said. “So the first thing I wanted to know was how long does someone stay in the hospital for initial treatment? Four weeks. I was able to get out in three.”
This determination to finish treatment and Sussberg’s unwavering decision to enter remission as quickly as possible has endured throughout the length of his disease.
“I had my mind on this [being] an interim period of time,” Sussberg said, adding that he never took his sights off of his self-imposed finish line on returning to work on Jan. 10 of this year.
Sussberg is the first to say that he probably should have given himself more time to recuperate before returning to work. Nicole Greenblatt, another partner in Kirkland’s restructuring group, said that Sussberg came back to work as relentless as ever.
“Everyone was pretty elated to see him back in the office. He came back full steam ahead and it was like he never left,” she said. “He’s the kind of guy who will do whatever’s necessary to achieve his objective. He does that with his clients and he did that with his sickness. Cancer never had a chance with him.”
From the beginning, Sussberg blogged about his journey to keep friends and family updated. In his posts, Sussberg details everything from what it felt like to be told about the grapefruit-sized mass taking up real estate in his chest to the relief he felt about the last chemotherapy appointment of his treatment protocol.
He often wrote nostalgically and emotionally about the lessons he has learned from going through this. “I would have never thought that I would’ve kept something like that, but it ended up being very therapeutic and helpful,” he said about the blog.
Sussberg said that he also kept writing for his sons to read in the future. Sussberg and his wife did not tell Jake (10), Ryan (7) and Brandon (4) the details or extent of their father’s illness because the couple felt their kids were too young to handle such information.
“We told them the truth as much as we could without labeling it,” said Jen Sussberg. The couple also sent an email out to community members that interacted with their children, asking them not to talk to the boys about their dad to avoid confusion. The task of shielding her children from their father’s disease only added to Jen’s stress.
“I don’t even know how I got through,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to play and not think.”
Sussberg spoke and blogged extensively about how thankful he is for his wife, who he married in 2004, for having helped him through his treatment.
“I kind of want [our sons] to go back and see that their mom did and everything that went on,” he said. “And I hope they know how fortunate we were.”
Sussberg’s good fortune is not lost on him. In his blog, he writes about how lucky he feels to be in his position. He had an endless flow of friends and family helping him with whatever he needed from companionship to childcare to medical expertise.
He also had health insurance and savings that allowed him to find the best medical professionals and treatment plan for his situation and jump in without financial stress. But he is aware that he is one of the lucky few with all those resources at their disposal.
That is why he started the nonprofit Team Suss in December to provide financial and personal support to families affected by acute T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma.
“If I can raise enough money to just make it a little easier for one family, that’d be good enough for me,” Sussberg said. “Having gone through it, I can see how people may need that and how difficult the circumstances may be.”
Sussberg will call on his colleagues at Kirkland, which he joined in 2008, to eventually help out with any pro bono work related to Team Suss. He has already spoken with some associates at the firm that want to help, although the organization is still in its infancy. But by year’s end, Sussberg expects Team Suss to be up and running.
“It’s quite a process to figure it out and it takes a lot of time,” he said. “I want to make sure I do it in a coordinated way and not half-launch it so it never goes anywhere.”
For now, Sussberg is back at work in the three-year maintenance phase of his remission. This includes daily chemo pills, quarterly spinal taps to ensure that chemo gets to his brain, monthly intravenous drips and significant doses of steroids. Following the maintenance phase, he will likely need two new hips due to avascular necrosis—the loss of blood to the bone—caused by the heavy steroid dosage. He calls this regimen “no big deal.”
Sussberg (pictured right) is already back up to speed in the gym, lifting weights and using the elliptical trainer for cardio. He commutes into Manhattan by car each day from his Westchester County home in Scarsdale, New York, so that he can make phone calls and get work done along the way. He does all of this, while still making time to be an attentive dad, husband and friend.
“He’s got his swagger back,” Jen said. “It’s the same Josh with this voracious attitude towards life.”
Sussberg said it best in his blog.
“Simply put, I have a lot left to do and this is just a speed bump,” he wrote. “But it is a speed bump that has opened my eyes and sharpened my focus.”
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