When Canadian artist Teva Harrison was preparing to undergo stereotactic radiation—a medical procedure that requires the patient to be vacuum-sealed into a mould that feels like a bean bag chair—she couldn’t stop laughing. “I felt wrapped up like a tray of supermarket sushi,” Harrison writes in her graphic memoir, In-Between Days, which chronicles her life after being diagnosed with incurable metastatic breast cancer at age 37. In a black-and-white comic, a smiling cartoon Harrison lies shrink-wrapped on a hospital bed and asks her technician: “Would you mind taking my picture in here so I can show my husband how weird this process is? Please?”
This sense of humor and eye for the absurd is woven throughout the devastating personal essays and minimalist pen-and-ink comics that make up In-Between Days. That doesn’t mean the book is Pollyanna-ish—Harrison confronts head-on the heartbreak, terror, and physical agony her cancer wreaks—but that these pages contain equal parts hope and dread. “I am chock full of hope, mostly because I need it to get through every single day,” Harrison writes. The “Acts of Hope” illustrated in one comic include “wearing seatbelts in cabs; buying recycled toilet paper; 7-step skincare regimen—because who does these things if they don’t believe in the future?” Perhaps the bravest act of hope Harrison performs is that of drawing and writing about her illness, which presumes the possibility of finding meaning and connection in the midst of suffering.
“When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t want to talk to anybody,” Harrison writes in the book’s preface. “I have since learned that it is the unspoken that is most frightening. Shining a light on my experience takes some of the power away from the bogeyman that is my cancer. I am taking my power back.” This means Harrison is unflinching in her illustrations of cancer’s grisly realities—from opiate-induced emotional numbness and vomiting to the foggy memory and vaginismus that follows surgical menopause—but also that she refuses to let pain block out light. She offers snapshots of her sustaining marriage and friendships; reflections on her family history and Jewish heritage; and childhood memories of snowball fights and summers spent floating with her sisters in “the mermaid pool,” a super-sized metal horse trough with a dedicated hose.
Shining a light on my experience takes some of the power away from the bogeyman that is my cancer.
In a society that often dehumanizes and shuts out the seriously ill—as Harrison puts it, “When we get sick, we disappear”—this portrait of living in the “in-between spaces” offers the antidote of empathy. We spoke to Harrison about the making of In-Between Days, the downsides of prevention messaging, and how to sustain hope and humor even when “wrapped up like a tray of supermarket sushi.”
“Living with this disease has changed the way I look at people around me,” you write. “I wonder what pain they bear silently.” How has your experience of compassion—your understanding of other people’s pain and suffering—changed since your diagnosis?
I don’t look like a person who has terminal cancer. I move through the world as a regular person—and yet I have all this pain and challenges I have to work through, from getting out of bed to getting where I need to be. It changed how I look at people — if strangers are cranky, pushing you on the subway, struggling to get a seat, I try to think about what might be behind that, what’s difficult in that person’s life, what’s making it harder for them to get through the world.
While you acknowledge the unrelenting pain and depression that comes with living with cancer, there’s more hope than despair in the pages of In-Between Days. Where do you find your wellspring of hope?
An element of it is how I’ve always seen the world. I’ve always erred on the side of optimism and beauty and appreciation and gratitude. But I have to have hope. I think it’s the only way you can live with this sort of disease and go on living, doing the things you love. A lot of my hope comes from the firm community I have. I’m really lucky in that regard. I have good family and good friends. That goes a long way because it means I have support—it’s easier to feel hopeful when you have support.
I get hope from watching the news and seeing how many new treatments are being developed all the time. I get hope from reading stories of exceptional responders—people who have lived a really long time with this disease. Because it is possible. Maybe I will get to have a normal lifespan. I’ll get to see change that is meaningful. So long as it’s possible, there’s hope there.
How did writing In-Between Days change your understanding of yourself, your own illness, and illness in general?
Before my diagnosis, I was director of marketing for the Nature Conservancy of Canada. My job had become very much entwined with my identity. I lost that when I got sick and had to stop working. There was this chunk of me that was missing. I didn’t have the ease of identity that you have when you have the knowledge that you’re contributing to society. Writing this book helped me work out what my place is now, how I fit in as a person living with illness, and how I can still contribute to the cultural conversation. The act of writing it helped me work out in real time how I feel about what I’m going through and how to communicate it. Writing and drawing about it caused me to think about being sick or having an incurable illness in an analytical way.
“I know my cancer is genetic, but I can’t help but blame myself sometimes,” you write. “I wonder what awful thing I did to deserve to get cancer. I run through all the bad things I’ve ever done.” You’re an atheist, but still occasionally entertain the notion of illness as some sort of divine punishment for personal moral failings—a common impulse for anyone looking for an answer to the question “why me.” Why do you think you sometimes go down the road of blaming yourself or looking for things you’ve done to “deserve to get cancer?”
We live in a society with so much messaging about prevention. With all that prevention messaging, where we were told ‘if you do this and this and this, you’ll be okay,’ it feels like if you do all these things and you’re still not okay, it must be your fault. That messaging is really deeply embedded in our culture. It comes, in some cases from the medical community, and also from other people. It’s a hard one to get around. Many of us feel this way. I’ve been told by many medical profs that this disease was coming for me, that it’s hereditary—but I still think, “well, I was on the pill for a few years, what about this and that,” things I did, be they moral or physical. I feel awful for people who don’t have that reassurance. I don’t know how to reconcile these feelings.
Then there’s the hyper-personal element—I’m Jewish and we have a special kind of guilt. My husband was raised Catholic and I was raised Jewish—the two primary guilty religions. He once said that Catholics feel guilty for what they’ve done, Jews for what they haven’t done.
“Friends stop themselves from sharing their problems, mumbling, ‘I mean, I have no right to bother you with my little problems. You have cancer,’” you write. “And in that moment, they’ve simultaneously raised me up and shut me out.” People often get uncomfortable and withdraw when a friend of theirs is ill. What are the most helpful things friends have said or done for you during illness?
Every cancer patient appreciates different things. For me, a big part has been offering something concrete. If someone asks, “What can I do to help?” I rarely have something at the tip of my tongue. But if someone says, “Can I bring you soup?” or “Do you need rides? I’m available x and y day”—that’s helpful. Sometimes my brain is really cloudy and I’m not able to come up with something – I appreciate people just being regular friends and telling me what’s going on in their lives, even if it feels like complaining.
But it’s really just showing up. There’s gonna be a misstep on one side or the other on any relationship. It’s more acutely felt with cancer or any serious illness. We always have to negotiate. Language is imperfect. Communication is this iterative process—we’re able to get there if we both try.
How has this illness affected your friendships?
With metastatic breast cancer, friendships are sometimes really brief and really bright. Because survival is so short, everyone I’ve met with this disease is trying to pack as much as they can in. We’re all living hard and bright. And that’s a special thing to experience with someone.
Which artists and writers most influence your work?
Helen Frankenthaler is my favorite painter. I particularly like her works picturing big objects pressing against tiny little narrow spaces. Writers, I love Lydia Millett and Lydia Davis—my two Lydias. Art Spiegelman. I love Maira Kalman—her book My Favorite Things.
You manage to hold onto your sense of humor during treatment — “I couldn’t stop laughing,” you write. “Having been wrapped up like a tray of sushi, I asked the technician to go into my purse, take out my phone, and take a picture so I could show my husband.” How do you make yourself laugh in the midst of cancer treatment?
I feel like who we are when we’re well is who we are when we’re sick. If we have a tendency to laugh about things when we’re well, I think we’re still laughing when we’re sick. If we tend to take things very seriously, we do that when sick. Humor is partly a coping mechanism, a way of getting through it. Part of it is also the fact that this was all new to me, since I had no real experience with the medical industry. I was discovering things like a little kid— “This is so cool! This is amazing!” They can’t stop laughing. To a degree, I’m like that. It keeps me from going in a dark direction. I have the capacity for both, and finding the humor in something helps me to not just see how dismal it can be.
You can buy a copy of In-Between Days on Amazon here.