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Branford author-athlete outruns 1 of the deadliest brain tumors, glioblastoma multiforme



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[New Haven Register]  Branford author-athlete outruns 1 of the deadliest brain tumors, glioblastoma multiforme

Published 9:46 am, Saturday, March 21, 2015


BRANFORD >> “Li-sa,” the doctor said. … “You have a mass in your brain, a tu-mor,” he said, his voice growing in volume. “A brain tumor. In. Your. Brain.”

Lisa Reisman’s byline is familiar to readers of the ShoreLine Times and Register, but this story is bigger than anything on her resume. It’s her story, long in getting out to the public, as honest and witty as it is raw and brave, about her conquest and subsequent celebration of a glioblastoma multiforme 4, one of the deadliest of malignant brain tumors.

Some might call it an amazing journey, but the Branford writer says, “I like to call it a process,” which is typical of the scholar, former attorney and athlete’s basic approach to life. The result is her new book, “5 Months, 10 Years, 2 Hours,” Outpost19, $16, a page-turner which recounts her battle and how she celebrated the 10-year anniversary of her survival by running her first triathlon, the 2008 Branford Hammerfest..........

Reisman was shocked when she heard that diagnosis back in the summer of 1998, but she atypically left the research and medical info-gathering in the hands of her sister Anna, known as Luke, and Luke’s husband, Cary, both physicians.

“I said, ‘Don’t tell me my prognosis.’ Looking back, my strategy was denial,” says Reisman. “I knew it was bad, but I really didn’t want to know anything about it. All I wanted to know was how to get better. I didn’t want to read horror stories. It wouldn’t help me. It would plunge me into despair.”

According to the American Brain Tumor Association, the majority of patients with GBMs live an average of 14.6 months. But Reisman (pronounced Reese-man) defied and continues to defy the odds after an aggressive medical protocol and her own survival plan and support system.

“There was no way I could not write this story,” she says, “because it’s such a great story, from the rescue by my stepmother, with whom I was never close … That said, there were several times when I almost gave up. The publishing world is not happy about illness memoirs unless they’re written by celebrities or in golden prose.”

If you think this is a tale of gloom and doom, you’d be wrong, thanks to Reisman’s page-turning writing talent and her funky outlook on life. She’s a witty wiseguy, who can also bring a reader to tears with her descriptions of the grueling “process,” and, more importantly, her unflinching honesty about her family and herself. She makes no secret about how her parents’ divorce and her Yale Law School father’s subsequent remarriage affected her, but she’s magnanimous about the role her entire family played in her recovery.

Ironically, it was her stepmother who saved her life. When Reisman failed to show up for her final assignment at her Manhattan law firm right after giving her resignation, Christiane was the only one able to go check on Reisman at her Upper West Side apartment, where she found a scene Reisman vividly paints from sight to smell.

Her grueling surgery in August 1998 was followed by 5 months of chemo and radiation, with Reisman lasering her focus on an MRI on Dec. 2, which her oncologist said would basically determine if she would live or die.

While recuperating at her mother’s home in Branford, Reisman approached her recovery with physical and mental rigor, overhauling her diet and going into full survival mode with a full menu of mental and physical stimulation that included poetry, piano and walking. Being athletic and a champion runner, it was natural for her to keep pushing herself, the better she felt.

“I gradually figured out a routine to get me through each day and get to the next day. I started walking, because I was always very active. I had played piano, so I started playing pieces from high school. That was this great way to move forward.”

Even though Luke was considered the writer among the three daughters in the family and Reisman destined to be the lawyer, she says, “I also had always been able to string words together. … I was a disaster as a lawyer, but the one thing that kept me employed was that I could write … I know it sounds weird, and there’s no way I could relive my life, but it’s almost because it was all leading to this,” she says.

The most important part of her recovery which also jump-started her new life as an author may have come when she sat in front of her mother’s computer and started writing.

“I had all these thoughts in my head, because, of course, I was terrified. I would sit down and type, type, type with my eyes closed. Eventually, what I was writing turned into this story. “I was so desperate to live, so afraid of dying. I wasn’t ready to die, and I feared dying more than being dead.”

Reisman says she still has no idea why she decided that competing in her first triathlon was a good way to embrace her reclaimed life, but “I read up on how to do it, then trained. It happened to be my 10-year anniversary, but I didn’t think I’d write about it.”

Already holding degrees in Ancient Greek and Latin from Oxford and Yale and a law degree from the University of Virginia, Reisman, who is now 48, pursued writing with the same determination she pursued everything else in life: steadfastly and earnestly, and armed with a goal.

At a Wesleyan University writer’s conference in 1999, Reisman showed a sampling of her work to her mentor-to-be Lis Harris, a former New Yorker staff writer who advised her to apply to Columbia University and study with her, which she eventually did on a fellowship.

The triathlon provided just the hook she needed to get the book to market. Harris and her husband advised Reisman to pitch what separated her story from other “illness memoirs”: “You don’t want to say, ‘I had a brain tumor’; you say you’re a triathlete who survived a brain tumor.”

Finally, after years of rejections, Outpost19, a small San Francisco house, bought the book.

Opening in the daunting waters of Long Island Sound, an apt metaphor for her uphill medical swim, Reisman neatly juxtaposes moments from that race – the 2 hours of the title – with her journal writings to give readers a revelatory glimpse inside her mind and her eclectic life, warts and all.

Before she collapsed in her apartment that summer day in 1998, Reisman says she was symptomless, but looking back, she realizes some of the personality traits that made her “a loose cannon” in her law firm, where she was an associate, may just have been an indicator that something was going on in her brain.

“I’ve always been a little bit sort of crazy,” she says. “I would do things at the law firm, like be provocative to the partners to get a rise out of them …,” a trait she has since learned has a name – disinhibition – “which makes people do things they might not do, which I did. I was never meant to be a lawyer,” she says with a smile.

Since giving up the law, Reisman, who has lived in Branford since 2007, bounced around in a few jobs, including writing copy at The New Yorker and Conde Nast, but has settled into her present career as a freelance writer, primarily for the ShoreLine Times. She also manages the popular Shoreline band Sin Sisters.

She says that moving back to Connecticut and becoming a reporter gave her “something that matters,” but she’s convinced that “this surgery saved me, that it had to happen for me to live.”

Donna Doherty is the former arts editor of the New Haven Register.

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