‘Girls on Chemo’: Cancer survivor seeks peers for supportive, fun get-togethers

  • Lisa Zacks of Williamsburg looked for ways to restore the femininity she felt cancer robbed from her. Buying pretty hats was one. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The chemotherapy port on Lisa Zack's chest. Lisa Zacks/CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Lisa Zacks talks about the support group she is starting for women on chemo called, Girls On Chemo. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lisa Zacks talks about the hats she wore once she lost her hair during her chemo treatments. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Although social media has helped Zacks connect with women around the world, she is forming a meet-up group to get together with local women for support and fun. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lisa Zacks talks about the support group she is starting for women on chemo called Girls On Chemo. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Zacks draws a picture representing how it if feels once cancer treatments stop and remission begins. The straight forward upward cycle picture on the right is what people often think remission will feel like and the confusing ups and downs picture on the left is what it often really feels like, she says. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lisa Zacks says cancer treatments robbed her of some of her feminity and she sought ways to restore it. One was wearing dresses and pretty hats. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Zacks is shown here in a photo posted on her Instagram account, Girls on Chemo. It was taken following a doctor's appointment that followed the completion of her chemotherapy. Zacks started the Instagram account to reach out to women around the world in circumstances similar to hers. Lisa Zacks/INSTAGRAM

  • In one of the photos posted to Zacks’s Instagram account, she sits at a PET scan machine at Coolety Dickinson Hospital four months after she finished chemotherapy. Lisa Zacks/INSTAGRAM

Staff Writer
Published: 10/23/2017 7:15:32 PM

With every dose of chemotherapy, Lisa Zacks felt that her feminine identity was slowly being stripped away. During her treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma her body had changed. Her periods had stopped. Here she was at 34 and already dealing with menopause. It was devastating that once the chemo had started, the brown wavy hair that always hung below her elbows, fell out. Soon her eyelashes were gone.

All the things that made her feel like a woman were disintegrating.

On top of all that, when she looked around the chemotherapy infusion room at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, she didn’t see any patients quite like her. Most were much older.

 “At the time of diagnosis I was 34 and that’s not incredibly young, but it is much younger than what you would typically see in the infusion room at the hospital,” she says.

The mother of an 10-year old boy, she felt her struggles were different than those of people decades other than she was.

A receptionist at Smith Vocational High School in Northampton at the time, she was the first person that parents and students saw when they walked through the door and her appearance was a big concern to her. 

“It was difficult to think that I wasn’t going to be in control of how I looked,” she says. “I think there is this unfair expectation for women to look a certain way, even if you are sick.” 

She had a strong support system, her husband, Matt Zacks, a software company general manager, always sat with her during chemotherapy treatments. Friends brought meals to her home in Williamsburg. But she still felt alone. She yearned for a way to connect with other young women with cancer diagnoses who were grappling with the same kinds of feelings she was.

 “I really wanted to find other people in my age group who were going through what I was going through.”

Searching for peers

She began asking around. She contacted Cancer Connection, a Florence-based nonprofit that works with those affected by cancer; she asked her doctors; she started an Instragram account focused on her cancer experience and she put up fliers suggesting a get-together.

Finally, she launched a meet-up group, Girls on Chemo, meant for Pioneer Valley women under the age of 50. Members can be at any stage of their cancer experience — freshly diagnosed or with years of remission behind them.

“It will be a place to talk about a woman’s range of needs and emotions during and after a cancer diagnosis,” Zacks says. And also a place to have some fun. The first meeting was at Dobrá Tea in Northampton earlier this month and while only one person showed up, Zacks is hoping that as the word spreads, more people will come. 

She’s thinking that, depending on the women’s preferences, they may meet at each other’s homes for brunch or take a walk in the woods. The next gathering will be Saturday morning for a hike at Bare Mountain in Amherst. They plan to go roller skating in Hadley in November.

Mainly, she hopes the women will give each other some relief from the isolation she experienced.

She was surprised, at first, that it was hard to find others like her with cancer.

“Although there were support groups, there wasn’t really anything for my demographic.” She says she thought to herself: “I cannot be the only one.”

She turned to social media, and with an Instagram account called “Girls on Chemo,” she connected with other young women around the world who shared stories about their cancer. But, still, she wanted to meet local people facing similar circumstances.

Worries continue

In June of 2016, she was told her disease was in remission, but she remained anxious, worried now that the cancer would someday return. And her body was different.

While she didn’t plan to have more children, chemotherapy left her unable to conceive again. “It felt unfair to be 34 and in menopause.”

She had found other ways to feel womanly, like often wearing dresses. “I always loved dresses, but I stepped up my dress game for sure.” She was concerned that her loss of hair made her look masculine, so she wore a wig. Eventually, she swapped the hot, uncomfortable hairpiece for flowery hats. It became her mission to find cute ones online. She started to wear more lipstick. She bought more nail polish. 

“I thought that this is something that I can control and make a statement with,” she says. “...any way that I could control something or express something I would experiment with.”

Even though her hair has grown back, she still keeps the hats upstairs in a drawer in fear that she may need them again.

These are feelings, she believes her peers are dealing with, too.

“I really need to find people locally because it is important for me for them to know that I exist,” she says.

“No one wants to be part of this community, but then you are and I think it is important to know each other and then support each other.”

For more information about the group, email GirlsOnChemo@gmail.com. To join the Facebook group, visit

https://www.facebook.com/groups/122393698420974/. To visit the Girls on Chemo instagram page, visit https://www.instagram.com/girlsonchemo.

Lisa Spear can be reached at lspear@gazettenet.com

Upcoming events

Saturday, 10 a.m. – Hike at the Mount Holyoke Range State Park’s Bare Mountain in Amherst. Meet in the parking lot at 1500 West St., Amherst.

Nov. 16, 7 p.m. – Retro Roller Skating at Insterskate 91 at 367 Russell Street in the Hampshire Mall in Hadley. 




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