Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Cancer Reader

Our Cancer Year
The godfather of indie-comics, Harvey Peckar and his wife Joyce Brabner, write about the year Harvey found a lump in his groin in this Harvey Award winning graphic novel.

This book begins as a reminder that almost everyone’s life will be touched by cancer at some point. Just after his lymphoma diagnosis and up to his surgery, Harvey and Joyce are constantly talking to people, sometimes close friends who, almost shyly, begin to talk about the loss of their partner or their parents or even their own ordeals.

The book begins with Joyce’s involvement with a youth group for teens from trouble spots around the globe, which seems a bit extraneous at first, but begins to pay off throughout the novel.

After his surgery, Harvey begins a brutal chemo and radiation regiment that in addition to the all the standard joys of chemotherapy, leaves him covered in weeping sores, severly disoriented and in screaming agony. 

As Harvey becomes weaker and more difficult to care for, the book comes back around to Joyce and the meaning of ‘Our Cancer’. At first the couple tries desperately to maintain a normal life; they had bought a fixer-upper home almost immediately before Harvey is diagnosed, Joyce has a visit to Israel already planned and Harvey tries to keep working through the chemo, but they are both forced repeatedly, sometimes violently, to come to terms with the realities of cancer. For Harvey, it is the toll that the chemo takes on his body and mind. For Joyce, that means watching as her husband degrades into this helpless, toxic, desperate, sick and disgusting thing as she is forced to care for him and deal with all the details of regular life. It is clear that she is determined, but she is also frightened and scared to show any weakness in front of her husband. She makes mistakes; she gets angry and frustrated and she sometimes takes it out on Harvey. In short, she is a kind and good human being doing the best that anyone could under the circumstances.

It is Joyce’s experiences, with Harvey and with the people around the couple who help out in ways that range from tiny to massive, that show how a disease as deeply personal as cancer can, if you are really lucky, become “Our Cancer”.
For more about Harvey and Joyce, there is an excellent and funny movie about their lives called, “American Splendor”.

A coming of age novel about a girl who has battled her whole life against cancer. This book is pure fiction, but it skillfully blends the frustrations of growing up, with the frustrations of being sick. It is in a lot of critic’s top-ten lists at the moment for good reason, though I found it read a little too much like a movie script in parts.

Read it and tell me that the part of author Peter van Houten wasn’t tailor made for Jim Broadbent.

The best layman’s guide to cancer and its place in history that you are going to find. Though it casts its net pretty wide, the historical approach really helps you put into figure out just what cancer is, what it is not, and its place in society over the past two hundred years or so (before that, not much is known).

And after reading about some previous kinds of treatments they did in the (not so recent) past, it also made me incredibly happy and relieved that I got sick in the 21st Century.

Also smoking and tobacco? Though they only get a surprisingly short chapter here … SO MUCH FUCKING WORSE THAN YOU THINK.

Anyone who have ever cared about has been through a serious illness and is still alive today owes their life to Henrietta Lacks.

Mrs. Lacks was born and raised in Roanoke Virginia during the first half of the last century. In her early thirties she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and died in 1951, probably more from the treatments than the disease. But she left behind two samples of cells that were cultivated by her doctors that would go on to become the HeLa cell line, the first human cells that continued to grow and dived more than a few months beyond donation. There are HeLa cells still growing and thriving in labs all over the world today, used in thousands of different experiments.

This book is a history of Mrs. Lacks’s life, her family, her disease and her incredible gift to humanity. It also presents some troubling arguments about medical ethics as mega-labs make millions from discoveries made possible by those cells while her family continues to struggle in poverty and try to understand just what it means when they are told that a part of Henrietta is still alive.


The screenplay was written by Will Reiser based on his own diagnoses and treatment of a sarcoma in his spine. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a young journalist who learns he has cancer, and Seth Rogan plays Kyle, Adam’s slacker buddy who almost imperceptivity shifts from being that goofy friend, to Adam’s primary support and caregiver.

While the bromance angle isn’t that applicable, there were some moments in this film that mirrored by own experiences so closely that I spent much of the movie bawling my eyes out.

It is also very funny.

2001 television movie based on 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same title by Margaret Edson. In it, a reclusive English professor discovers she has a virulent form of breast cancer. The play is about a lot of things, but it also about the costs of going through something like cancer alone (sort of an antithesis of ‘Out Cancer Year’). I saw a few people in this situation; mostly older people … words cannot describe how heartbreaking it is.

‘The Emperor of all Maladies’ talks about this period of time in treating breast cancer; it was a kind of ‘scored earth’ approach. It was brutal and unfortunately ultimately, ineffective.

While the movie (and I would assume the play) are hard to watch, the narrator’s titular Wit is what helps you get through it. At one point she describes herself as “published *and* perished”.

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