Squinting her eyes and wrinkling her nose, 25-year-old Lisa Mongillo struggles to recall a memory of her life before cancer.
"I was diagnosed when I was 5," Mongillo says. She has vague memories of running into the bedroom shared by her two older brothers, and a moment on a playground when a kid said she was little. The only thing she remembers about the family vacation to Washington, D.C., was how she was just so tired all the time.
"All the memories I have before I started middle school are jumbled," she says with a shrug.
Many of the memories she does have of those childhood years in Arlington Heights spent fighting leukemia come from an old Daily Herald feature story written about her family's Make-A-Wish trip to Hawaii during December 1997.
"Rereading your description has helped me many times to be able to reconnect with who I was and what happened to me," Mongillo said recently in an email to Lisa Miner, the reporter who wrote that original story and now works as a Daily Herald editor. "I sincerely thank you for writing it."
That story (with photographs by Mark Welsh, who shot the photos for this column) walked readers through a journey that began before the kindergartner was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. It included details of the countless spinal taps and grueling chemotherapy sessions that took the little girl's hair and made her wear a "weird and creepy" wig to school, where an aide helped her get around. The story recounted how the chemotherapy left her exhausted, irritable, bloated and unable to walk. It told of infections and a life-threatening bout with congestive heart failure.
But it also revealed her family's faith, strength and positive attitude that saw the girl shun typical Make-A-Wish dream trips to adventure parks. She wanted to visit Hawaii and see the periwinkle plant, which grew wild there and was an ingredient in one of her lifesaving drugs.
"I don't know why I was so obsessed with that flower," Lisa Mongillo says now, suggesting that maybe she wanted to embrace something living in nature because the rest of her cancer experience involved tubes, needles and such a sterile, artificial environment.
Still fueled by an obsession for things that are real, Mongillo is a Second City-trained comedy writer and improv actor currently performing in a show called "The Longest Con" at the Public House Theatre in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. The show, whose final performance is at 8 p.m. Wednesday, takes Mongillo and Leenie O'Connor through life's milestones of birth, friendship, love and death. Tickets are $10.
"I play a character who's dying, but it's a good scene," a grinning Mongillo says of one skit. "We sing a little song at the end."
The pair, who call their comedy team Mongill-O-Connor, met in January 2013 after successful auditions to be admitted into a conservatory at Second City. O'Connor, 30, grew up in Evergreen Park, got her bachelor's degree in musical theater at Western Illinois University, lived in New York and acted in musicals before discovering improv at Second City. Her mother's death from melanoma in 2007 gives her an appreciation for what Mongillo went through.
"We certainly have a dark sense of humor about life and death," O'Connor says.
"Three-and-a-half years of not being able to move around much -- all I did was read and write little stories," Mongillo says.
While not the basis for their show, cancer influences her performances before audience members, she admits.
"I don't want to shove it down their throats, but …" Mongillo says, building the comedic tension a moment before concluding, "it does make me feel like I'm better than them."
Stunned for a second, O'Connor bursts into laughter, and that makes Mongillo laugh.
"You can't print that!" Mongillo gasps, before eventually acquiescing with the understanding that any mention makes it clear that she is only joking. That settled, O'Connor starts the laughs going again by noting the truth is that, "Yes, Lisa is better than other people."
It's all in fun. That's what Mongillo does onstage and in her blog, tweets ("I know last night was awkward but I wanted to send this letter to tell you I like you (a lot!) and also to return your severed index finger") and videos on her lisamongillo.com website.
"She's healthy. She's funny. She's smart," says her father, Lou Mongillo, a longtime social worker now in private practice after retiring from a school district. "We're happy she's pursuing the things she does."
That focus on happiness was evident even during the worst of the cancer years, adds Susan Mongillo, who remembers her very sick daughter painting a rainbow during one of the darkest moments.
"I took that as a symbol," says the mom, who works as a fundraiser for the Advocate Charitable Foundation and who has an aunt who worked as a secretary for Norman Vincent Peale, famous for his "power of positive thinking" approach to life.
In addition to her full-time job with a not-for-profit education agency, Lisa Mongillo volunteers with a couple of cancer-related charities. She doesn't let on that she is a "survivor."
"It was just something that happened to me," Mongillo says of cancer. "My parents handled it, and I just had to be there."
She says she doesn't want to "glorify" her survival, especially when she's made friends with people who went through the same experience, fought as mightily as she did, and still died.
"With all the horrible things going on in the world right now, my problems seem pretty small," says Mongillo, who got her bachelor's degree in business administration from William & Mary, lives in Chicago's trendy Wicker Park neighborhood and enjoys good health. The only tangible reminders of her cancer are regular heart checkups, some lingering numbness and tingling in her hands and feet, and the small scars on her chest from the central lines used to give her medication back then.
"Overall, I've been very lucky," she says.
Mongillo does have one memory from kindergarten that remains vivid.
"I remember the moment I was diagnosed very clearly," says Mongillo, who had gone into another room with a nurse while doctors told her mom and dad that their little girl had leukemia. "I remember when they brought me back in the room with my parents, and they were crying."
But that's not a memory she wants to end with. So there is the memory of her first theater performance, as a grade-schooler after her treatments were done. Until her improv act, it was her only stage appearance.
"I was in an all-white children's production of 'The Wiz,'" Mongillo says. "So you can imagine how good that was."