Lisa Reisman

5 Months 10 Years 2 hours

2015 Santa Fe Writers Project Award Winner

Read more.


"Those in search of another treacly cancer memoir need not even glance at this... Reisman's unflinching and moving tale puts to rest the image of patient as warrior. By linking her own ordeal to the triathlon she took on to mark her 10 year anniversaryshe reveals the true nature of cancer survival — not as a triumph of epic valor, but as a feat of endurance, forbearance and true grit."

—Lisa Sanders, MD, New York Times columnist and fellow cancer survivor

5 Months 10 Years 2 Hours
by Lisa Reisman
an excerpt

September 2008


Beautiful. I had sunk $110 to wake up at 4:30 a.m. on a cold, dark Sunday morning to swim a half-mile loop in frigid waters, cycle fourteen miles, and run four through slicing winds and driving rain. Three hundred others had done the same. One had just slapped me mid-stroke in the face. Another kicked me in the gut. When I came back up for air, a hand scooped a stream of Long Island Sound water into my open mouth. It tasted like scum.

It was my first triathlon. At that moment I believed it would be my last.

As the remaining swimmers left me in their wake, I glanced behind me, hyperventilating. Whitecaps splashed against rocks; waves ripped through the slate-dark surface; the sky was a fury of grays.

Just then, the heaving waters around me calmed. In the distance I made out the orange blur of the first turn buoy. And recalled the words of the tiny, sun-wrinkled woman as we stood at the starting line, I trembling in the face of the choppy waves, she calmly windmilling her wiry arms and jogging lightly in place. "Get to the first buoy and you'll be fine," she chirped, smiling brightly, as if there were nowhere she'd rather be.

I began to regain my senses. Just get to the first buoy.

No way I was turning back. This was my ten-year anniversary. With life.

By then the details were sketchy. But I know it was a Friday night, and it was the last day of July 1998, and I was late. I had been preparing for a conference with opposing counsel to settle a case before it went to trial, and it had taken longer than expected. I sprinted across Third Avenue. The air was close.

The dark wood-paneled pub was packed. The music was loud. The group, most of them from my law firm, occupied a corner table. I ordered a Guinness and a plate of shoestring fries. Someone on the Yankees hit a home run. Everyone hooted, high-fived. There was shouting, hilarity, something about Bill Clinton's cigar. I talked for a while with a guy who had just begun his surgical residency at NYU. He was a college friend of another fourth-year associate and had curly red hair and a quick laugh. While the bill was being split up, he asked for my number. I told him of my plan to drive across the country in a Plymouth Valiant convertible. "And I'm not even balding," I remember saying. "Cool," he replied, looking vaguely puzzled.

The streets were festive with lights. Music spilled out of restaurants and bars. It was the sort of summer night you felt the city was your own. One more week, I said to myself as I neared Central Park. One week of attending the settlement conference, tying up loose ends, and life begins. As I took in the familiar odor of exhaust and the sweet smell of honeysuckle, I felt a sort of lightness, as if something in me had opened and I could take in more air.

I caught a taxi on Fifth. It was close to midnight when I trudged the two flights to my one-bedroom and kicked off my pumps. The next morning, I went for a five-mile run through Riverside Park. It was already warm. I was spent.

As I was letting myself into my apartment, the phone rang. It was my older sister Luke calling from Baltimore; we talked every Saturday morning. I told her I needed a nap; I'd call her back when I got up.

That's the last I remember. I don't remember taking a shower, putting on a T-shirt, muting the ringer of my phone, adjusting the air conditioner to high, drawing the dark shades to block the early August glare, or stretching out on my futon. Nor do I remember lying motionless sometime Sunday afternoon while a friend buzzed on my intercom from the outside entrance and shouted my name from the patio of the garden apartment below.

I don't remember failing to show up for work on Monday morning or the spring of the deadbolt lock or the rapid clop of my stepmother's heels across my living room floor and into my bedroom early that afternoon. Or being placed on a gurney and hustled downstairs or the wail of the siren as I was rushed to the hospital or who sat beside me in the ambulance.

All this I learned later.

My mother sat ramrod straight. My father's knees jittered and twitched. Luke shifted positions every few moments. Cary stared at the clock, checked his watch, adjusted his glasses. I waited motionless, perched in a sort of highchair, barely breathing.

Finally Dr. Schachter hurried in, doughy in washed-out blue scrubs and a mop of gray hair. He nodded at us soberly and installed himself on a green leather stool with wheels. The stinging around the stitches had settled into a dull, pulsating throb.

A nurse entered the room, holding an oversized manila envelope. "Ah," he said, reading the top of the envelope. "Rizeman." He had no idea who I was.

"Reisman. You took a tumor out of my brain last week?"

"Right," he said, evidently still trying to place me. He slid the scan from the folder and inspected it. "So, you'll be doing your radiation treatments here, I take it," he said, not looking up.

Quietly I exulted that I needed only radiation, that it was not so serious as to require chemotherapy.

"We thought she'd go to Yale both my parents live close by," Luke was saying. "We've already talked to a few oncologists up there."

"Who." It wasn't a question. He was still inspecting the MRI.

Luke named the doctors.

"Very good," he said. "All fine doctors." His beeper, clipped to the waist of his pants, interjected. He eyeballed its message and sighed. "Just one moment."

A moment later he was back, restationing himself on his stool. "So, where were we?"

Silence. I closed my eyes. The clock ticked. I felt a wave of heat, then a lightness, as if I'd floated out of my chair and was watching the proceedings from somewhere above. "What did the pathologist find," I heard myself saying, the words clear, distinct, my voice oddly calm, the only question there was.

"Ah, yes," he said. "Wait one more moment. I think the report is being printed out just now." He left again.

"Yes, now I remember," he said on his return, waving a piece of paper. "It's glioblastoma. Multiforme. Grade 4." He spoke casually, almost offhandedly, and for a moment I tried in vain to recall what Luke had said about the grade was higher better, like a higher test score? but only for a moment. "I'm sorry," he was saying.

I think I asked what this meant and I might have stammered out a few more questions but already my heart was sinking like a stone through deep, dark water. My eyes glistened. I felt them pooling with tears and I blinked rapidly, trying to maintain my composure.

Scraps of conversation swirled about.

"Highest grade"

"most aggressive form"


"won't be enough"

"even if you thought you got everything?"

"doesn't matter"

"if the chemotherapy doesn't?"

"some promising clinical trials"

"survival rate?"

"not necessarily a death sentence, no, absolutely not, not at all"

"yes yes, palliative, if it comes to that"

My father was feverishly taking notes on a small pad. Luke's face was frozen. At some point everyone stood up. As I rose, I felt my cheeks burning and my heart kicked as if I'd been shot, like a bird in flight.

I must have thanked the surgeon and made my way, unseeing, through the waiting room, out of the hospital, and into the blinding sun.