Fighting breast cancer her way

With support and a feeling of duty to work, Julie Anderson keeps a sense of humor

By Julie Gerke
Photos/Julie Gerke

Julie Anderson has spent her professional life working with lawyers and the law, so she’s used to certain turns of phrase common to courthouse regulars.

She’s made up her own phrases to deal with a new task.

Anderson, 60, is Morgan County’s circuit clerk. She’s also 1 of every 8 people who will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. October is designated as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with various fundraisers and lots of pink ribbons, T-shirts and ties designed to raise awareness of a cancer that affects both women and men.

However, Anderson doesn’t like the word “cancer.” After myriad tests, biopsies, scans and four weekly sessions of “hard” chemotherapy, she’s spent the summer and early fall with weekly lower-dose chemo sessions. “I was sentenced to summer school,” she tells people, “because I flunked my mammogram.”

Her sessions, when drugs enter her system through a temporary port on her left upper chest, are at a Jacksonville infusion center whose rooms are calming and peaceful, with big windows, TVs and heated recliners with massage options. She calls it her “chem spa.”

“I tell everybody, ‘It’s my turn in line instead of someone else’s granddaughter or daughter,’” she said. “[Breast cancer] is more common than you think. It’s not an isolated thing anymore. … I can say something to one person and that person already knows someone” who’s been diagnosed or who is being treated.

Quilter, reader, friend

Anderson has worked at the circuit clerk’s office for 23 years, and was chief deputy clerk last March when she was promoted to the top job following the resignation of Amy Sipes. A month later, a routine annual mammogram became anything but routine.

Morgan County Circuit Clerk Julie Anderson fills out a form at her desk in the main courtroom.

Her appointment, to fill the remainder of Sipes’ term, ends Dec. 1, 2024. But she wants the job on her own merits, and will run for a full term. The primary election will be March 19; the general election is in November 2024.

The circuit clerk is one of eight county-level elected positions in Morgan County: three county board members, sheriff, coroner, circuit clerk, county clerk and treasurer. Anderson has eight deputy clerks who work in the civil and criminal divisions, officially filing documents for adult and juvenile misdemeanor and felony criminal cases, adoptions, divorces, small claims, probate and miscellaneous lawsuits; keeping track of bond money, child support and payments of fines and fees; filing state reports; and updating daily and long-term dockets for judges, prosecutors and other attorneys.

“We are the official record-keeper for the courts and everything that passes through the court system, from traffic tickets to murder cases and everything in between,” Anderson said.

The office has a current annual budget of $521,700.42, which includes salaries. About half of the budget is allocated for office operations and special court costs; Anderson said far less is usually spent.

Anderson, formally “Julia,” the name that will appear on the primary ballot, grew up in Franklin, graduating from high school in 1981. She met her husband at a company picnic when they worked for competing grocery stores; Mike is now a machine operator at Nestle. Son Chris Mulquin is manager of the new Hy-Vee store in Jacksonville; daughter-in-law Sarah works at Heritage Health. Her granddaughter, Ellie, is 12.

She started her work career at various floral shops, and bought a shop in Waverly in 1997. Two years later, she sold it and went to work as a secretary for attorney Richard Crews, now state’s attorney for Scott County. In March 2000, then-clerk Barb Baker hired Anderson as a civil division clerk.

Today, Anderson is a member of Morgan County Republican Club, where she serves as president; River Country Quilt Show, serving as treasurer; and a local quilting guild. She makes “big block easy quilts,” she said, laughing. “I leave the fussy stuff to other people.”

She’s also a voracious reader and enjoys most genres. Her attention, currently, is on post-apocalyptic fiction. After COVID-19 entered the everyday vernacular, she was “curious how people would survive and I think COVID was a lot of that, with the toilet paper shortage and all the shortages.”

Anderson meets for dinner every six weeks or so with a group of high school friends, and enjoys travel, particularly to Las Vegas. She’s not a gambler or show-goer, but likes to look at the sights and watch the endless parade of people.

‘Completely blind’

Until April, Anderson was “very medically boring,” she said, and no immediate family members had had cancer. She’d been getting routine annual mammograms since she was 40; 15 years ago, the test revealed a benign cyst, which was removed without issue.

She had no symptoms then, and none last spring when she went for her annual test. Afterward, she got a call saying an ultrasound was ordered, and thought – if anything – the mammogram had revealed another cyst.

Anderson realized the test wasn’t routine when she overheard someone mention a spot on a lymph node. She finally told Mike after a doctor called to schedule a needle biopsy for spots on her right breast and adjacent lymph nodes.

Her next call came from an oncologist.

Anderson’s treatment course has been the opposite of what she expected: rounds of chemo, with various scans and tests in between, designed to shrink or dissolve the tumor. When she finishes the chemo, she’ll talk with the oncologist about whether she’ll need a lumpectomy, which removes the tumor and preserves much of the breast tissue, possibly followed by radiation, or whether she’ll need a mastectomy, which removes the tumor and breast.

She won’t know for a while, and doesn’t focus on it. It’s the same for the long-term prognosis of her Stage 2 cancer: Until the chemo sessions end and more tests are taken, there’s no sense in guessing what the future holds.

“I had no idea what to expect [from chemo]; I was completely blind,” Anderson said, lamenting the lack of a local support group for people whose treatment includes chemotherapy. “I wanted to know what was inside of the room, the process, how they felt. I would like to see something like that come to fruition in the future, whether that involves me or not. I thought it was kind of an important step that was missed.”

Julie Anderson, circuit clerk of Morgan County, poses for a portrait in the main courtroom. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in April.

She’s avoided nausea and swings in body temperature, but has lost about 12 pounds and fights fatigue a few days after each chemo treatment. Smells don’t bother her, but she no longer enjoys eating fried foods, including French fries.

Anticipating hair loss, she had her short hair trimmed into a military buzz cut; a few days after the first chemo round, the bits of stubble fell out, filling her hands as she took a shower. “It was a lot to stomach, having it in my hands [and not on my head], a complete handful of it,” she said.

She had the remainder shaved off, and now wears a wig. When she leaves work and hits the highway for the ride to the Andersons’ rural home, “first thing, I take it off. It’s very freeing. I like the breeze blowing on my head.”

‘Very supportive’

Anderson’s professional personality brims with responsibility and a focus on her work. She doesn’t share many personal details with work colleagues – work is work – but knew she had to tell judges Chris Reif and Jeff Tobin, and State’s Attorney Gray Noll, about her diagnosis.

“They were very supportive when I had to do that,” she said. “But I was upset in a mad kind of way; I felt I was inconveniencing everybody. They put it to me to just remember to put my health first and that we do not get to choose in our lifetime when this happens.”

Later that afternoon, she told her staff. She hasn’t preached about the importance of self exams, mammograms or other routine health checks, but told her all-female staff to make sure they take the time to take needed tests.

“We’ve all had to pull together,” said deputy clerk Gwen Redemske, who joined the civil division 2 ½ years ago. “No one is not affected by this. We all love her and respect her and want to be as good a team as we can while she’s going through this.”

Now on the low-dose chemo regimen, Anderson takes a non-drowsy antihistamine to help with any allergic reaction to the drugs and takes anti-nausea pills for two days after each Thursday session. The fatigue, which was worse with the higher-dose chemo, usually hits Saturday afternoon and lasts through Monday.

A few weeks ago, a persistent cough and sore leg meant a temporary halt to the lower-dose sessions while doctors tried to figure out the problem. They eventually decided she’d had a run-in with the most recent Covid strain, and it had caused blood clots in both lungs and her left leg.

“It knocked me on my butt for a week; there was a big fatigue that went with it,” she said. “I kind of likened it to how I felt with the hard chemo.”

The clots brought a prescription for blood thinners, and then a resumption of her chemo sessions.

“I’ve treated [cancer] like everything else; I will do what it takes,” she said. “I’ve done that the whole time I’ve had that treatment; I’ve not let it interfere with anything.”

Redemske said Anderson and the clerks continue work as a team. “She’s not keeping us in the dark,” she said. “Cancer is dark, ugly, in your face. She doesn’t hide the fact that she has it, but she doesn’t put it on display,” calling her boss a “great example.”

“I don’t call myself a survivor. I’m a cancer fighter at the moment,” Anderson said. “The chemicals are doing the battle. I’m battling the side effects of the chemicals.

“I’ve had people disagree, but they’re not in my shoes.”

In this series of three photographs, Morgan County Circuit Clerk Julie Anderson removes her wig while seated in the main courtroom gallery. She usually pulls off the wig for the car ride home because she likes the feel of the breeze on her head.

Little Black Dress Event
6-8 p.m. Oct. 26
The David Strawn Art Gallery, 331 W. College Ave., Jacksonville
Tickets: $30; call/text Lisa Kluge at 217-248-1272
Hors d’oeuvres, wine, music, desserts
Hosted by Girls on Fire to benefit the Mia Ware Foundation

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