Frances Fisher

Ninety-year-old Frances Fisher at her Tempe home on Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Fisher recently went into remission after treatment for Burkitt’s lymphoma.

[David Jolkovski/Tribune]

Escapism is an underrated part of life, something devalued from a combination of cynicism and a lack of pragmatic purpose. But flights into fantasy are invaluable when coping with something large and frightful, or simply trying to stave off impending doom.

What’s the harm, really, when a person like 90-year-old Tempe resident Frances Fisher uses a deep reservoir of daydreams to make the mundane interesting and the chemotherapy sessions she endured into something resembling fun?

Fisher’s days of magic at Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert are rooted in rather rare circumstances. The cancer she contracted, Burkitt’s lymphoma, is a rare form of Non-Hodgkins lymphoma most commonly found in children, mostly boys, between the ages of 7 and 11. According to the National Institutes of Health, the disease’s symptoms include fever, night sweats, unexplained weight loss and swollen lymph nodes, none of which Tempe-resident Fisher said she suffered prior to her diagnosis of Stage IV — or the highest stage — Burkitt’s last fall.

“I had nothing whatsoever; I was only tired,” she said.

Treatment for Burkitt’s entails a series of intense chemotherapy sessions that last approximately six months. That’s a long time for anyone, but the decision to undergo the treatment was tricky because her age decreased her odds of survival significantly. Information provided by Banner lists the survival rate of Burkitt’s at 33 percent for people older than 60; add on another 30 years and the percentage drops even more.

So Fisher was left with two options: go through the procedure and the pain it would induce or go into hospice care and wait for the end. There’s a fair amount of logic to the latter option, but with her family’s blessing and the chance of survival offered by her doctor, Fisher decided to give the treatment a go.

Fisher began the chemotherapy sessions five days a week from September through her 90th birthday in March, and her imagination began to run amok in the hospital over the course of those months. The IV pole she toted around with her in the hospital was actually a Christmas tree; the people who worked with her transformed from hospital employees to Sir Galahad and Sir Lancelot; and the room she visited to receive her treatment turned into a room with a view.

Even the scale she used in the mornings to maintain her weight wasn’t immune to her imaginary machinations. The scale remained a scale, but Fisher imagined she was a jockey getting weighed before a race.

“I had a name for everything. It wasn’t the corridor, it was a walk in the park,” she said.

Fisher’s daughter, Gail, admits she enabled her mother’s trips into the fantastic, joining her on rides on the express train — those involved the two Fishers and another patient walking with their Christmas trees around the hospital — on treatment days. Gail considers it a part of a treatment cocktail that, along with the medication and chemotherapy, played a role in her mother’s recovery.

“Going through something like this, you have to concentrate on the positive aspects,” Gail said.

It didn’t hurt that the treatment didn’t knock Fisher out of action; she still ate three meals a day and didn’t suffer the waves of nausea associated with chemotherapy. She even got up in the morning to move the furniture around in her room to gain a better view of the television.

Things are looking up for Fisher now; she’s back home and getting back into the swing of things. There are still certain things she did before the cancer — tennis, cycling, volunteering at places like the Tempe Center for the Arts — that she can’t because of fatigue, but she’s still positive, and she has a lot left to do before her magic runs out.

“I’m going to get better, I have determination. There’s so much to see in this world,” she said.

Contact writer: (480) 898-5647 or


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