Chronicling Cancer, In Graphic Form Cartoonists Brian Fies and Miriam Engelberg use comics to write about cancer. Both say they've found one cartoon drawing can distill meaning, humor and sadness more effectively than a 50-page essay.
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Chronicling Cancer, In Graphic Form

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Chronicling Cancer, In Graphic Form

Chronicling Cancer, In Graphic Form

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Two memoirs about cancer recently caught my eye. They're graphic memoirs, graphic in their honesty about the disease and literally graphic. The stories are told in cartoon form.

One is by Brian Fies, titled simply Mom's Cancer. His mother, Barbara, was diagnosed with lung cancer that spread to her brain. The other book, by Miriam Engelberg, is called Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 at age 43.

The drawings are very different. Engelberg's artwork is kind of primitive. They're simple line drawings. Brian Fies has a retro-classic cartooning style. He describes it as Family Circus in hell.

Mr. BRIAN FIES (Author, Mom's Cancer): One reason I decided to tell my story through cartooning is that I believe these kids of symbolic images provide a direct injection of understanding directly into the reader's brain. I think humor plays the same role of sneaking meaning or truth past the reader's defenses and just hitting them more powerfully because of it.

BLOCK: Miriam, did you find that you were able to sort of distill what you were going through into this form? Were there ever points when you felt like there was more you needed to say than could fit into those squares?

Ms. MIRIAM ENGELBERG (Author, Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person): You know, I feel pretty much the war Brian does. I think he put that really well. If I were writing essays, they would be really bad essays about this. And somehow in the cartoon form, panel-by-panel, the absurdist part of this whole experience comes out in a way that it wouldn't if I was just writing an essay.

BLOCK: How hard was it, or maybe how easy was it, to find the humor in what you were going through?

Ms. ENGELBERG: It's totally a defense mechanism, I'm sure. But I'd be going through something and even while it was awful and scary, I would have some kind of idea. For example, when I had to do my first CT scan and it looked like I was going to be metastatic and it was an awful time. I had to go into the dressing room and there was a diagram of how to put on the three-arm gown.

It's this really complicated thing to put on. So there you are, you know, anxious, scared, and then you have to try to look at this diagram and figure out how to get this thing on. And so I immediately, after the CT scan, I jotted down three-armed gown, and I even drew a little sketch of diagram so I could put it in my cartoon.

BLOCK: Miriam, you have a cartoon that I love where you say that you're not at all convinced that an MRI is an actual medical procedure.

Ms. ENGELBERG: Right. That's right. Anybody who's had an MRI - so they wheel you into this little tube and then you hear a series of noises, which I guess is the magnets. So I did a cartoon and the first time I had it, I just sort of imagined, for my sanity, the Monty Python team out there in the control just doing all sorts of fake sound effects like the clapping of the coconuts or, you know, whatever.

So in my cartoon, at the end of the MRI, it shows me leaving and then it shows the Monty Python team leaving and the doctor saying, Okay I'll write up something medical now.

BLOCK: Brian, there were moments in your book when, there are just these moments of brutal honesty, in a sense. Your mom had lung cancer and there's a cartoon that I'm thinking of where you're talking about smokers and how you look at them now.

Mr. FIES: Yeah. My mom smoked for a long time. And, yeah, in the cartoon you're talking about, it was difficult going to the cancer clinic and wheeling my mother in a wheelchair through the knot of people standing by the front door of the cancer clinic smoking a cigarette before they went inside to have their cancer treatments.

I kind of lash out about that in one of the pages and say essentially that these people all deserve whatever they get. And I've actually taken some flack for that, rightfully so, by people who don't quite get what I was going for, which is that I was having a bad day. And I don't necessarily think that all, everybody who gets lung cancer from smoking deserves it.

But on the other hand, that was part of my commitment to be honest. There's nobody in my shoes who hasn't thought that. And I knew if the book was going to have any value at all, it would have to be not just all hearts and rainbows and hugs and courage, because we weren't that kind of people.

BLOCK: There are lots of points in here that are startlingly candid. I wonder, though, what you had to leave out. What you just couldn't put on the page. And if you can talk about it.

Ms. ENGELBERG: That's a hard one. Well, in my case, I've now added a little more material about my family, i.e. my husband and my son. But my son was four when I was first diagnosed and he's now nine. And now I'm metastatic, which means the cancer has spread. So it'll never completely leave me unless they come up with some miracle drug.

So, for me, that's been the hardest point. I can make fun of the three-armed gown, the MRI. But when it comes to family, I have tried to include them in the cartoons, but it's much harder because that's the point where it really does feel very scary and heartbreaking to me. And it's harder for me to find a comic twist that I can put on it.

Mr. FIES: That's interesting. My glib answer is that if I couldn't put it in a book, I'm sure not going to tell you about it.

BLOCK: Understandingly.

Mr. FIES: My better answer, I think, is my mother actually passed away in October of last year, after the book was done and it was ready to be published. And some people have asked if I would write about that and I don't think I can. My book originally ended on this very nice note of mom in remission, starting a new life for herself. And we at literally the last minute had to add this coda that she had passed away.

Mom's final months were very brutal. And I think although there's probably lessons to be learned there and things that I could talk about or write about or draw about, I don't see any way I can bring myself to do that. Our family will keep that to ourselves.

BLOCK: Before your mother got so sick again, before she did, she did write an afterward for your book, Brian. And I wonder if you could read us, maybe from the end of that piece that she wrote.

Mr. FIES: Sure. I appreciate that. A little background is, is my mother loved this story. My mother loved being a star. She got fan mail from all over the world. All of that meant the world to me. If she hadn't approved of it, it wouldn't have existed. I would've killed it. But let me find a good spot here.

Mom wrote - It's too soon to know what I've learned from all of this. I know the most important person for me to take care of now is me so that I will around to help others later. Cherish rest, laughter, friends and prayer. Trust in yourself and make a peace with your higher power. Have a hero - her dog was named Hero - to never let go of and help you through the terrifying nights. Take frequent baths to get rid of the scent of toxins. Watch a lot of comedies. Keep your minds and hands busy. Then just breathe for as long as you can, knowing that others are helping to hold you up.

You know, this afterward means a lot to me. Mom did write it herself. I can hear her voice saying this. It just makes the story perfect as far as I'm concerned.

BLOCK: Brian and Miriam, thanks so much to you both.

Ms. ENGELBERG: Thank you.

Mr. FIES: Thank you.

BLOCK: Brian Fies is the author of Mom's Cancer and Miriam Engelberg is the author of Cancer Made me a Shallower Person: A Memoir in Comics. You can find panels from their books at our website,

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