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Personal Essay: Comics about living with cancer were born out of a desire to communicate how the experience felt for me, writes Teva Harrison


(photo: David P. Leonard)


When I was first diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer, I didn’t want to talk about it to anybody. I grudgingly talked to doctors, but I didn’t want to go to support groups because I feared they would either be full of much older patients trying to work through death-related issues (something I wasn’t ready to consider), or young women, just finished with their treatment for an earlier stage cancer, looking at me like I was their nightmare come true.

So I set up a private blog to share clinical updates with close friends and family. And I hunkered down, managing one day at a time.

Hats off to anybody who gets through something like this without help; I rely on capable psychiatrists. After a few months of talking, I started to draw comics in response to therapy. At first, these drawings were just about the past – about childhood memories of discomfort, shame, and fear. Those first drawings were very uncomfortable, but I felt a little better after each one. I have no desire to share those earliest comics. They were like purging.

Later, my husband and I attended a retreat for young adults with cancer. I talked, not just to other people with breast cancer, but people with advanced cancer, who can’t be cured. Younger people like me, just hitting their stride in life, knocked down by the punch in the stomach of a terminal illness.

When I got sick, I found a lot of disheartening statistics, clinical information, and services available to me. But what I was looking for was experiential information about what it feels like to have cancer, to go on living with it – how there’s an entire concurrent world, operating alongside the only one I’d known, occupied by sick people and our caregivers. It’s not an easy thing to fathom. It’s almost science fiction, like Calvino’s invisible cities.

I wanted to share the way it feels to live with this disease. The way it feels for me. Because the visceral details may be different for everybody, but chances are we run through the same suite of feelings when we live with a chronic or terminal illness. Some combination of fear, loneliness, helplessness, isolation, guilt, shame. We live in the shadows. And, of course, we live with hope – but there are plenty of representations of that already.

When I got home from the retreat, I started to draw. I tried to channel the way I felt: the fear, pain, and shame, the search for joy and meaning. The emotions of living with cancer are complicated. I was drawing because I had to draw. Often, it was all that made me feel better.

I was initially very reluctant to share these drawings – they made me feel so vulnerable, like crying in public. After a while, though, I needed to be understood, to know whether the way I was feeling approached normalcy. I tentatively showed a few drawings to another friend with cancer. She laughed at the ones I thought were funny and related to all of them, even the ones outside our shared experience. I realized that by being completely honest about how I was feeling, I was tapping into a basic well of commonality of experience. I felt less alone already.

So I took a deep breath and put the drawings online, hoping they would find their way to somebody else living with cancer and help them feel less alone, too. I honestly expected that to be the extent of it. In a way, that would have been fine because I was drawing out of a need to make sense of the dramatic changes happening in my life. But I’m really glad it didn’t stop there: I had an opportunity to migrate the comics to The Walrus magazine’s website, where they found a wider audience. I also had a chance to sit down with House of Anansi Press to talk about whether we might have the beginnings of a book.

Because this project began online, it went through its adolescence publicly. I’ve had realtime reactions every step of the way. Sometimes people troll me on the Internet. They send hate mail because I’m sharing complicated opinions publicly. Is this what I expected? Not necessarily, but everything I do these days is so outside of my greater experience. More often, people reach out to me warmly: the media looking for comment, the newly sick looking for recognition, old friends stunned by the news of my illness, exceptional survivors encouraging me with their own stories of outliving everybody’s expectations. In this way, baring my truth has repaid my vulnerability with kindness.

I wonder if this recognition is a gift to a memoirist? I am new to sharing the hard parts of life. In the past, I tried to share only joy. I didn’t see how my problems were anybody’s business but my own. It took the twisting, gnarling grip of cancer to set my pain (and my pen) loose.

Teva Harrison is a Toronto-based writer and artist. Her graphic memoir, In-Between Days, is published by House of Anansi Press.