Book Bag: ‘Instasick’ by Lisa Zacks; ‘Maven Reaches Mars’ by Jane McPhetres Johnson

Staff Writer 
Published: 3/5/2021 9:28:07 AM

Instasick by Lisa Zacks


A little over five years ago, Lisa Zacks of Williamsburg was leading a perfectly normal life. She was 34 years old, working and married, in good health, a regular exerciser; she and her husband, Matt, had a 10-year-old son, Dylan, they both doted on.

But her whole world was about to change. In early February 2016, Zacks was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

But right now Zacks has beaten back her cancer, and though she says there are still days when she feels anxiety and fear that it could return, she also finds renewed joy in life and an appreciation for basic things that she might previously have taken for granted.

In “Instasick,” a memoir of her journey, Zacks lays out what it felt like to be diagnosed with a deadly disease at a relatively young age, and seemingly out of the blue. Her memoir compiles previous accounts she developed in journals, on social media posts and through photographs, adding an overall arc that takes readers from her frightening early days to her current thinking of “seize the day.”

“We only have this one life to live,” Zacks writes. “We need to let go of guilt and embrace goodness. We need to make time to do the things we want to do while we still can. We need to tell people how we feel and be generous with praise. We should always make time for those we love. We should take risks.”

Her difficult journey began with a strange feeling, in November 2015, as if there were bits of food stuck in her throat; her glands also felt swollen. Visits to her personal doctor and an ear, nose and throat specialist were inconclusive. She asked for an ultrasound, then a CT scan of her chest. The latter procedure revealed a tumor and other problems.

It was devastating news, Zacks writes; it didn’t help that her older brother had been diagnosed with the same disease a year earlier. Zacks says she and her husband initially “were convinced that I was going to die.”

But in fact, Zacks writes, the first sentence out of her oncologist’s mouth was, “You are not going to die.” And though there would be any number of ups and downs over the next few years, Zacks kept those words close to heart.

“Instasick” offers a look at both the physical rigors Zacks went through — she lost all her hair while she was undergoing chemotherapy — and the emotional roller coaster she went on. She notes that her initial loss of hair and her weakness made her shun friends for a time, even if she could have benefited from company.

“I think the best therapy for coping with remission is really through human connection and learning how to best balance what we’d like to do with what we need to do,” she writes.

She tried to find humor where she could. One of the photos in the book shows a scar on her neck from some initial surgery and includes the caption “Lymphadenectomy battle wound. I told my son I got into a fight with Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter. He dug it.”

Zacks also started a Facebook group, “Girls on Chemo,” for people roughly ages 20 to 50 to get together socially to talk about their experiences with cancer, whether in remission or still being treated, and to enjoy social outings, from bowling to roller-skating to a restaurant meal.

She also documents some of the awkward encounters she had with people who could, even if well-intentioned, make her feel self-conscious about her condition. On a brighter note, before her hair grew back, Zacks experimented with wigs and new hats to try and feel more feminine.

Ultimately, she writes that going through cancer has led her to stop feeling guilty about the many things she fretted about before she became ill.

“When I die, I want to leave knowing that I did my best to enjoy life (in a responsible, considerate way) and that the people I loved knew exactly how I felt about them and how they made me feel,” she says. “You don’t need to have had cancer to live this way. Anyone can do it and there’s no better time than the present to start.”

Lisa Zacks’ handle on Instagram is lisa.zacks.


Maven Reaches Mars by Jane McPhetres Johnson (Off the Common Books)


At age 77, Jane McPhetres Johnson of Amherst decided to tell something about her life story — and to do it with poetry.

“Maven Reaches Mars: Home Poems & Space Probes in Four Fascicles” offers a mix of free verse and prose poems that begin in Colorado and the Midwest and trace Johnson’s journey across the country and overseas, through a number of jobs — teaching, gallery management, overseeing library programs — raising a family, and developing a love of the outdoors.

That love continues, even if it’s slower going these days for Johnson. “Walking the Robert Frost Trail” offers a nod to a popular byway in Amherst: It’s a place Johnson goes to to try and ease her mind.

“I pick up a sturdy-looking stick / to give myself a dependable third foot // or delusions of undaunted confidence / as I inch along, eyes pealed for the next / patch of black ice, longing to feel uplifted / in this wintry world of discontent ...

In “Love Letter to My Neck,” the poet pokes fun at herself and the notion that aging is just a sad, relentless decline: “Ah, there you are, hanging out / under my chin, as usual. Rather / not as usual, exactly. You’ve loosened up / lately, lost your grip. Yet, you old / turkey wattle, I love you … you have made possible / my head turning to satisfy / my heart and my natural bents.”

“Desperate,” by contrast, is a lament for the environmental destruction that comes from the relentless drive for fossil fuels, in which we “behead the mountains” and “drill deep into life’s ancient layers / with chemicals and enough force / to fracture our planet’s armored plates ...

This collection of 90 poems, some of which have previously been published, is divided into four sections. Johnson calls it “A hopeful book, just in time for pandemic-closed bookshops and canceled readings. Maybe it’s a memoir in four small volumes.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, your leading source for news in the Pioneer Valley.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy