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To cope with cancer, Wheaton resident created jokes that became a cartoon coloring book, and therapy for others

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 12/1/2021 Alison Bowen, Chicago Tribune
Jeri Davis holds her coloring book "Greetings from Chemo Country" at her home in Wheaton on Nov. 30, 2021. © Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune Jeri Davis holds her coloring book "Greetings from Chemo Country" at her home in Wheaton on Nov. 30, 2021.

Humor may not be expected on a chemotherapy floor.

But for Jeri Davis, jokes became a way to cope.

She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2020 after some early symptoms she chalked up to allergies. After the hospital visit that resulted in a rapid diagnosis and chemotherapy, Davis found many absurdities within the treatment process.

“Cancer isn’t necessarily funny,” she said, but poking fun at the process, “It gave me a bit of power over it.”

It was hard, she recalled, trying to listen to everything doctors told her, especially when the time from first scan to chemotherapy happened all in the flurry of one week.

“I’m taking all this in, but trying not to go any further than what I call my firewall,” she said about trying to mentally protect herself.

Her father was always funny, and jokes had helped get through previous tough times.

“I found that having some humor with the nurses and the doctors, it seemed like everybody was grateful for that,” said Davis, 66, who lives in Wheaton.

She made jokes throughout chemotherapy, comparing the taste of everything to cardboard or suggesting a cocktail of the drug propofol when treatment ends. She started collecting these one-liners; she had dozens.

Along the way, she wondered if humor could help others as it had helped her. She thought of people spending hours in chairs receiving chemotherapy.

“Maybe they’re tired of reading; maybe they’re tired of watching TV,” she said.

A 2017 study on laughter therapy and cancer patients found that laughter could be a noninvasive and beneficial tool. Another study in 2015 assessing breast cancer patients noted the importance of assessing quality-of-life factors and reducing depression and anxiety. Researchers found that even one therapeutic laughter program could be effective in lowering anxiety, depression and stress. Such programs included leading participants to various types of laughter, like laughing while clapping or with dance routines, and ended with sharing emotions.

Jeri Davis hold her coloring book called "Greetings from Chemo Country," which features this illustration by artist Carol Hillinger. © Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune Jeri Davis hold her coloring book called "Greetings from Chemo Country," which features this illustration by artist Carol Hillinger.

Cartoons can simplify a complicated process for patients; a University of Chicago oncologist created the cartoon “Cancer Ninja” after seeing how little patients took in after discussions about what their cancer meant for them.


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Amy Forde, an oncology infusion nurse who treated Davis at the Northwestern Medicine Cancer Center in Warrenville, said humor can help patients feel like themselves. At the cancer center, she said, they treat patients like people with senses of humor.

“We don’t know how to treat them like this is such a somber, serious situation,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s our sense of humor that helps us get through our days, but I’ve never had as much fun in my life as I do with my chemo patients.”

Cancer survivor Jeri Davis is the author of the coloring book "Greetings from Chemo Country," which features illustrations by more than a dozen artists. © Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune Cancer survivor Jeri Davis is the author of the coloring book "Greetings from Chemo Country," which features illustrations by more than a dozen artists.

Davis shared her thoughts with a group of friends who were artists, some she knew from her years in advertising, others friends from the Rogers Park elementary school she attended.

They created a Facebook group and illustrators from their old advertising firm began picking up her jokes and committed to creating illustrations.

The result is “Greetings from Chemo Country: An Irreverent & Often Inappropriate Coloring Book About Chemotherapy,” a book with 26 illustrations that came together within two months.

The books are available to order online. Davis said after receiving interest from Campout from Cancer, a group that sends camping gear to kid cancer patients, she sent them coloring books. In the Northwestern chemo unit she used to sit in, patients are given coloring book pages. Since January, she has been cancer free.

The cover of her book has the title splashed over a bald head that is a sketch of Davis, drawn by her friend and Portage Park resident Tim Souers.

Souers remembers talking to Davis after she’d visited a hospital gift shop, noting items with themes like “You can beat it.” Davis felt like there wasn’t enough humor out there, where people could feel a bit of themselves within the narrative around cancer.

“Jeri’s funny; she kind of had a different outlook on the whole deal,” he said. After she gave a couple of examples, he cracked up.

The cover was inspired by her conversations about going bald. “It’s shocking; literally all your hair falls out, even your eyebrows,” Souers said. “She said something like, ‘My head is a billboard.’”

Davis is touched that the book feels like a Chicago project, with local artists coming together from different parts of her life, eager to help.

“I’ve always loved my city,” she said.

Nearly everyone who worked on this was also touched by cancer in some way; Souers had a dear friend die from cancer years ago. That friend, too, had leaned on humor.

“He had the same reaction as well,” Souers said, “a healthy one.”

Davis is “pinching herself,” she said that this has grown into so much. She hopes there will be more opportunities to bring humor into oncology, perhaps cartoons for kids or greeting cards. After all, the material continues to build.

Despite no longer needing chemotherapy, Davis still feels the effects of cancer treatment and note oddities. For example, “funky” brittle toenails, which she was told were aftereffects and felt later because of how long it takes nails to grow.

“Nobody told me about the toenails,” she said.

abowen@chicagotribune.com

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