Last Fall I gave a talk at Baldwin Wallace University at the invitation of Dr. Michael Dolzani who taught a graphic novel course where they read Lisa’s Story. Dr. Dolzani recently shared with me some of the essays that were written in regard to Lisa’s Story, and I was very impressed with the work. So much so that I decided to share one of them with you. The first essay is by Jackie Lamb who graciously gave me permission to share her work. The illo that accompanies the piece was an alternate title and cover for the book that was obviously never used.
27 November 2018
Coping Mechanisms in Lisa’s Story
The National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Statistics state that: “Approximately 38.4% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime” (National Cancer Institute). And according to a CBS news poll, 54% of Americans report that they or someone in their family has been diagnosed with cancer (CBS News). If over half of Americans lives are affected in some way by cancer, then why is genuine representation so rare and even taboo? If popular television and film address this topic at all, it tends to be in corny after-school-specials or histrionic medical dramas. The media displays a narrow binary of cancer patients as either happy-go-lucky Race For the Cure poster women, or miserable, resentful people who have lost all hope. Tom Batiuk’s, Lisa’s Story serves to correct some of those tropes. Lisa’s Story, a bold deviation from the author’s previous repertoire of “high school humor,” Explores the life of the protagonist, Lisa, and her friends and family after she discovers that she has breast cancer. Batiuk provides a realistic narrative of lives touched by cancer and through the large cast of his comic strip “Funky Winkerbean” examines how people cope with the tragedy of terminal illness.
After her diagnosis, Lisa and her friends process the shocking news in multiple different ways. One of the prominent coping mechanisms featured in the book is performing selfless acts. Friends of Les and Lisa exemplify this by helping them out in small ways, like making them dinner, or in one man’s case, even washing their car because he didn’t have any food to bring (19). Lisa’s girlfriends, who Les describes as “wonder women” arrive at their house near the end of the book, announcing that they are “house cleaners, caregivers, babysitters and shopping assistants at [Les and Lisa’s] service” (213). One of the “wonder women,” Holly Budd, even happens to be Lisa’s ‘Reach to Recovery’ volunteer who helps her understand her illness from a survivor’s point of view. In an act of kindness and vulnerability, she shows Lisa what her own mastectomy looks like when she notices how frightened she is about her upcoming surgery (16). Another friend of the couple, Cindy Summers, even breaks from her former self-centered, “shopaholic” ways to give her time to Lisa. Noticing how depressed Lisa is about losing her hair, Cindy turns to what she knows best and takes Lisa out wig shopping to lift her spirits (48-53). Even Lisa herself finds healing in helping others. The second half of Lisa’s Story, “The Other Leaf,” takes place seven years after the diagnosis when Lisa is in remission. she is shown participating in the ‘Reach to Recovery’ program again, but this time as a volunteer giving advice to a patient just like Holly did for her 7 years prior (82). The characters in Lisa Story exemplify that when unable to help in any other way, people will give of their own time and effort as much as they can.
As the leader of Lisa’s breast cancer support group says: “Laughter can be a pretty strong medicine for dealing with cancer” (79). Lisa, Les, and friends often lighten the weight of her adversity through humor. Les and Lisa make light of the depressing situation in nearly every panel from playfully referring to their HMO as “Denialcare” (55-7), to making jokes about serious medical procedures like Lisa’s mastectomy (35). Lisa even laughs in the face of the grim prognosis that she has mere months left to live by sarcastically saying that she was “kind of looking forward to a midlife crisis” (93). Lisa’s tenacity and zest for life help her to cope with her illness. After her first Chemo session, Les says to Holly that she is “attacking this like one of her legal cases” and she replies that “her cancer doesn’t know how much trouble it’s in” (97). Lisa gets through her many exhausting treatments by making sarcastic quips and jokes, about herself and her cancer, so much so, that the doctors marked “feisty” on her chart (171). She even envisions herself as a superhero, fighting off cancer-cell-monsters with laser beams (136, 155). The characters are not making mean-spirited jokes at Lisa’s expense, or belittling the patients who go through hell every day just to stay alive. Humor is simply their way of, taking something uncontrollable and controlling parts of it. Humor allows people to distance themselves from adversity, and to understand and process it in a completely new way.
While Batiuk wrote jokes into many of its strips, Lisa’s Story contains a balance of humor and seriousness. Lisa and Les are humans after all, and sometimes they process the terrible news through anger, hopelessness, and fear. Les and Lisa are both terrified of what’s to come, and try to be strong for each other whenever they can be, but there is always an underlying fear in their interactions. In one strip the two are on a walk and Les assures her that even though her diagnosis is scary, “[they’ve] lived through stuff like this before, and [they] can do it again.” reassured, Lisa tells him that he’s convinced her, but in his head, Les is wondering how he can convince himself that everything will be okay (10). Lisa experiences similar fear and guilt. In one strip Les wakes up from a nightmare frightened and disoriented. Lisa sadly says: “I wish I could help…but I can’t be strong enough for both of us!” (22). In another strip, Les comes home to pick Lisa up for their date but she doesn’t feel well enough to go. Lisa, exasperated, yells “What do you want from me!?” and Les thinks to himself “I want things like they were!” (47). Lisa’s Story does not shy away from scenes of Lisa breaking down in tears, feeling angry about her diagnosis (55), or guilty because she thinks about her illness so much, or even in total shock (88). These raw scenes reveal the reality of coping with terminal illness. sometimes the illness is too overwhelming, or painful, or frightening, and people often cannot cope in ways other than through expressing their visceral emotions.
People also may eventually process their grief through acceptance. As shown in Lisa’s Story, The patient almost always comes to accept their (fate) more easily than their friends and family. At the end of the first half of the book, Lisa takes a contemplative walk in the park. In the beginning she is frustrated that this is the direction that her life is taking, but throughout the sequence of her walk she comes to the conclusion that: “Life isn’t a walk in the park…but that fact shouldn’t keep you from enjoying a walk in the park!” (65-7). Lisa keeps this attitude even as her condition worsens and especially when her life expectancy is cut drastically short. Like many cancer patients when they understand that their time on Earth is running out, Lisa decides to quit chemo; to “live the time [she] has left, not just be alive” (175). Lisa lives up to this declaration.she takes walks outside with her husband (208), She make snow angels outside with Les even though she’s extremely ill (126), she eats as much junk food as she can at the country fair (205), and she even testifies before congress about cancer research funding (197-200). Les finally accepts the reality of the his wife’s condition and tells her that it’s okay for her to let go (204). Although this is one of the most difficult ways, people can eventually cope with cancer when they work up the strength to accept the diagnosis. So many patients and families face the difficult decision between staying on treatments and prolonging a life of pain, or ending treatment and enjoying what life they have left. When people accept the grim reality of the cancer diagnosis, they can appreciate their time with their loved one and even feel more emotionally prepared for their death.
Amongst all of the overdramatized representations of cancer patients, Lisa’s Story stands as a true ode to survivors, those currently battling cancer, and their loved ones. Lisa’s Story highlights all of the familiar trials that patients and families endure. The comics strips make the large, daunting subjects of cancer and death understandable and even humorous without trivializing the subject or the millions of people who are living through their own version of “lisa’s story.” Lisa’s Story is not only a source of comfort and solidarity for people suffering through similar situations, but a useful resource to help people understand how people cope with the tragedies of terminal illness and early death.
“Cancer Statistics.” National Cancer Institute, www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statistics.
CBS News. “CBS News Poll: Majority of U.S. Families Touched by Cancer.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 12 Mar. 2017, www.cbsnews.com/news/cbs-news-poll-majority-of-us-families-touched-by-cancer/.