It’s not often that a comics panel will make me put a book down to catch my breath. Our Cancer Year, a 1994 comics memoir by Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner and Frank Stack, chronicles Pekar and Brabner’s lives as Pekar, a legend in the history of underground and independent comics, was being treated for lymphoma. The first panel hit me as hard as anything I’ve read.
“This is a story about a year when someone was sick, about a time when it seemed that the rest of the world was sick too. It’s a story about feeling powerless, and trying to do too much. Maybe doing more than you thought you could and not knowing what to do next.”
“It’s also a story about marriage, work, friends, family and buying a house.”
In 2020, I was diagnosed with Stage IV rectal cancer that had spread to my liver. Initially, the outlook wasn’t great, and I pretty much expected to die. But after a challenging series of procedures, including three months of bi-weekly 48-hour-long chemotherapy sessions, five weeks of daily radiation treatments, and three major surgeries (two of which had complications that each kept me in the hospital for a month), I am cancer-free, with a fairly low chance of recurrence.
Pekar and Brabner’s “cancer year” overlapped with the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. Joyce is active with international peace movements, and the stresses of confronting a world suffering from the illnesses of missile strikes and burning oil wells compound the stresses of living with a partner dealing with cancer. My personal cancer year (…and a bit) began shortly after COVID-19 became a global concern: as I went through treatment, the “rest of the world” was, literally, “sick too.”
The passage didn’t strike me simply because of that coincidence. Rather, it helped me grasp something that I had been struggling to articulate as I’d put much of my life on hold and bounced from appointment to appointment: for cancer patients and the people who love them, the changes cancer brings are wide-ranging, profound, and often permanent. Cancer didn’t just affect my physical health, it changed my entire world: work, finances, intimate relationships, friendships and family, even my relationship with my own body – all things that I struggle to address as I rebuild my life.
I read Our Cancer Year alongside Kimiko Does Cancer, Kimiko Tobimatsu and Keet Geniza’s 2020 comics memoir that documents Tobimatsu’s experience with breast cancer. These books, written decades apart by very different people, show readers not only how two patients experience disease as individuals, but how cancer shapes the relationships – familial, romantic, friendship, professional – that define us. Moreover, Tobimatsu and Geniza take readers beyond the effects of cancer on patients and the people close to them to talk about some of the disease’s often overlooked social and political dimensions.
(Note: when I’m writing about the creators of these books, I’ll do so by last name, while “Harvey,” “Joyce,” and “Kimiko” refer to the on-page characters these creators depict.)
Unless you’ve been there, it’s difficult to explain how hard prolonged cancer treatments are. Chemotherapy tears a patient’s body apart. Radiation therapy is the only medical procedure that sees patients go to the hospital every day for weeks only to be much sicker at the end of the treatments than they were going into them. This is where Our Cancer Year is strongest. We watch as Harvey loses his hair, drops weight, and encounters serious mobility issues brought on by his chemotherapy. Looking at what chemo is doing to his body, Harvey sees his treatments as “slowly killing” him. Stack’s sketchbook-style drawing is particularly effective here: Harvey is often drawn with a loose hand, revealing him as a shell of himself.
At one point, Joyce brings some copies of Harvey’s comics to his oncologist so the doctor can have a better understanding of the person he’s treating. Beyond its physical effects, prolonged medical treatment has the seemingly-inevitable effect of leaving a patient feeling reduced to tissues and tumours: Kimiko, after repeated examinations, becomes “desensitized” to her own body.
Cancer also complicates whatever issues a patient takes into treatment with them. Harvey and Joyce’s story shows us how cancer can compound mental health issues, challenging patients and the people who love them. Harvey suffers from chronic anxiety: before the diagnosis, we see how anxiety stemming from buying a house with Joyce nearly incapacitates him, forcing Joyce to deal with whatever Harvey’s anxiety render him incapable of. While somewhat frustrated, Joyce understands her partner’s struggles, patiently reminding him that “any kind of change messes you up.” The disruptions that cancer brings to Harvey’s live really mess him up. Harvey’s very much a creature of habit. Taking time off work makes him an emotional wreck: he has little idea of what to do with himself, and the side-effects of chemo rob him of the energy and attention span he needs to pursue his love of music, reading and writing.
As cancer disrupts a patient’s life, it sends shock waves through family and friends. When Harvey gets his diagnosis, he worries as much about what will happen to Joyce as he does about his own outcome. Because Our Cancer Year is told largely from Joyce’s perspective, we see the emotional toll Harvey’s cancer takes on her, ultimately leaving her wondering “at what point” Harvey’s disease became “‘our’ cancer?” Kimiko’s family, on the other hand, tries to keep their feelings hidden when she’s around, so we really don’t get to witness the depths of how her illness affects them. She learns about their struggles after the fact: Kimiko’s hairdresser tells her that her mother would cry when she was getting her hair done as Kimiko was going through treatment.
Beyond its effects on patients and the people close to them, cancer reveals how, as Second-Wave feminists put it, the personal is political. Tobimatsu and Geniza want us to understand that narratives that we attach to cancer “gloss over the way cancer [affects] people differently based on race and class.” Kimiko’s attitude to treatment is shaped by her queer identity. She “enters treatment “with some mistrust towards doctors, particularly around sexual and physical health,” and is leery of asking for support, as she values the independence rooted in her sense of masculinity as a queer person. The broader dynamics that underlie her illness and treatment are not limited to what happens in the hospital. Her reaction to a cancer support group focuses on how our culture paints women with the disease as “cancer warriors” who are “white, feminized and apolitical.” The “peppiness” of the women – they “kick cancer’s butt and look good while doing it” – erases the way gender, race and class differences shape people’s experiences with the disease.
Much of the “cancer warrior” discourse is rooted in a denial of fundamental realities. Treatments are arduous, dehumanizing, and at the end of the day, often futile. The toxic positivity that pervades much of cancer culture can keep patients from accepting their new physical, mental and emotional limitations. Harvey and Kimiko both struggle to give themselves the space they need to be sick. Harvey refuses to take his accumulated sick time even as he’s going through a difficult course of chemotherapy. Joyce tells Harvey’s oncologist that he will only step back from work if a doctor gives him “permission” to do so. Likewise, Kimiko doesn’t think that the “emotional stress” caused by her illness and treatments justifies stepping back from work, though she notes that she “would have if it was happening to someone else.”
Even once we are functionally “cured,” cancer patients can be left with long-term after-effects from the procedures that saved their life. In my case, I use an ostomy bag and have acute numbness in my extremities, a side-effect from chemotherapy that limits my fine motor skills and has me walking with a cane because I’m unsteady on my feet. If Our Cancer Year is strongest when it focuses on the suffering induced by cancer treatments, some of Kimiko’Does Cancer’s most important insights are about how, for many of us, being declared cancer-free is not a finish line, but a milestone in a process that might last years, or the rest of our lives. Kimiko’s story focuses on her “new normal” of living with a hormone therapy regimen that will (hopefully) keep her cancer from recurring. The aftershocks of her treatment are bad enough that she asks herself if she “[has] a disability,” a question I struggle with: does what we live with count as being “disabled” when “the discomfort is from medication?” As Kimiko observes, there is relative silence surrounding the after-effects of cancer treatment because “the mainstream cancer narrative is about overcoming adversity,” not about being left disabled.
I first read these books as I was recuperating from having half of my liver removed and waiting to get two tumours removed from my rear end. By this time, my prognosis had improved substantially, and I was (most days) pretty sure I was gonna live. At the same time, I was really beat up, and I knew that the hardest part still lay ahead of me. I reread them this week, a little more than three months after being declared cancer-free. At one point, Kimiko expresses her frustration at the slow pace of her recovery, and wonders if she isn’t “making excuses” for herself for not getting enough done. I feel much the same way, most days. She spends the closing part of the book reflecting on how she is learning that cancer forces us to accept our new physical and spiritual limitations. We have to learn to be patient with ourselves, to give ourselves the space and time we need to recover, and to find a way to live in a state of “uncomfortable progress.”
She seems to be in a place that, if I squint my eyes just right, I can see from here.