Thursday, March 29, 2007

Did You Hear the One About the Tumor?

Lately I've been reading comic books -- known to the literati as graphic novels -- about cancer. Two are the memoirs of cancer patients, one was written by a patient/spouse team and one by a dutiful (cartoonist) son. I'm fascinated by these tales. After all, who has the chutzpa to draw cartoons during cancer?

I am deeply curious about the authors' experiences, both medical and artistic. The first person narratives provide a glimpse into how women with cancer view themselves and how that view changes through the course of the disease. When a loved one tells the story, family crisis dynamics are revealed.

Ha-ha Funny or Weird-Funny?
All the books depict patient interactions with doctors, friends and family members -- and apparently there is room for improvement in our behavior. Clever illustrations and sarcasm gently skewer overly optimistic doctors, know-it-all friends and clueless family members. All the books are also entertaining, although some inspire more laughs. Some are drawn with sophistication; some are steeped in popular culture and one story is set in a context much broader than cancer. While I doubt the authors would claim they are meant primarily to provide cancer education, there is a certain emphasis on medicine in all of them. Symptoms, diagnostics, treatments and side effects are all depicted in detail and, to my happy surprise I found most of the information accurate.

Below are some of my reactions to four graphic novels about cancer.

Fighting Profundity
“Cancer made me a Shallower Person” is popular among breast cancer survivors I know. The title is one example of the author's self-deprecating humor. “I've tried to come to terms with death in many ways. I studied theology…I've tried to glom on to other people's beliefs…but mostly I've cultivated a practice called 'avoidance.' (Uh-oh - thoughts of death coming on. Quick! Turn on Matlock!)” Sadly, we won't have future installments. Author Miriam Engelberg died in 2006 at age 48.

A Truly Shallower Person
I grabbed the bright purple copy of “Cancer Vixen” the moment I spied it. Also written in the first person, “Vixen” is professional cartoonist Marisa Acocella Marchetto's account of her oh-so-glamorous Manhattan life during treatment for stage I breast cancer. My favorite touch is the detailed drawing of a distinctive pair of high fashion shoes that introduces each round of chemotherapy. “Chemo #5. I started treatments in August and now we're in NOVEMBER?! (Emilio Pucci Rubber Boots)”

Drawn with Perspective
“Mom's Cancer” is poignant and beautifully rendered by Brian Fies about his mom's battle with lung cancer. It began in 2004 as a comic on the Web and grew virally to become a favorite. The author did not spare himself a critical eye: “ALL I have to offer is this: I hold a valid driver's license and I know the way to the hospital. I can hang curtains, flip a mattress, load a dishwasher. I can deliver a pizza, lend a steadying arm, laugh at a morbid joke and compliment a bad wig. And I know the metric system. I doubt that's gonna be enough.”

Cancer Ain't Pretty
The longest memoir of the four and the only one without obvious humor is also the oldest. “Our Cancer Year” was published in 1994 and tells the story of cartoonist Harvey Pekar's 1990 battle with lymphoma. Fans of Pekar's work have expressed disappointment that Frank Stack illustrated this book instead of longtime Pekar collaborator R. Crumb. Stack's crosshatched panels portray wife and author Joyce Brabner's growing tension, relatives who dismiss Pekar's suffering with tales of “the old country” and a parade of variously helpful doctors and nurses. This sometimes-grim book shows the additional fear and disruption cancer brings to Pekar's already anxiety-ridden life. But “it's also a story about marriage, work, friends, family and buying a house” according to Brabner.

Some Light Reading - NOT!
So who has the chutzpa to read and laugh at cartoons about cancer? Maybe everybody should. After all, today more people we know and love survive cancer. These graphic memoirs provide a peek into what their lives may be like. Note that all of the authors express not only fear and pain but also isolation as they wrestle with cancer. In one fashion or another they all said sharing their stories through comics was therapeutic. So don't be timid: the stories can be dark, indeed, but along with the sorrow lies hope and yes, even humor.

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