Author: Marissa Marchetto
Pages: 192 pgs.
Publish Date: March 5, 2007
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Catalog ID: ISBN-10: 0007258968
Where to buy: https://bookshop.org/a/1457/9780375714740
Cancer Vixen is the illness story of Marisa Marchetto, a New York Cartoonist. She was drawing a regular magazine strip when she discovered she had breast cancer. Thrust into a confusing world of expensive specialists and confusing treatment options, she had let her medical insurance lapse and would have been faced with crippling bills of about $200,000 to pay had her fiance, restauranteur Silvano, not been able to add her name to his insurance. The story documents the investigations and treatment she went though. The overall style of the book, with clear-line drawings and flat bold colours, is up-tempo and funny without shying away from the more difficult subjects. The ISBN label suggests the book be filed under “Health”, meaning it is as likely to be found in the “self help” section of a bookshop as sandwiched between The Dark Knight Returns and From Hell . The dust jacket, purple with pink sparkle text, covers a magenta hardcover with Marisa’s character squaring up to the figure of “Death” and screaming in its face “CANCER, I AM GOING TO KICK YOUR BUTT…”. Thus, the contents are summed up: this is a survival story to inspire those in need of courage. And one might suggest that those who find themselves in a similar position to Marissa might be considered the target audience.
The book is filled with little bits of information that only someone who has been through cancer treatment could impart: from little day to day observations like how bad flatulence can smell after chemotherapy (!) to practical advice that would be of use to others going though similar treatment. Although I’m not saying this book will teach oncologists much about the practicalities of treatment, it has a surprising amount of information about chemotherapy that is enlightening to health professionals like me who do not work in that field. One might expect that much of the information may be found in patient hand outs or guides, but I’d doubt that it crops up in many textbooks. Even for professionals working in cancer care, the real strength of this book lies in the non-propositional knowledge it imparts: what it feels like to go through this, the stress it puts on self esteem, intimate relationships, friendships and work. The stigma that follows cancer: in one of the most memorable sequences an “It” girl openly propositions silvano in front of Marissa, and gives him her card saying “I’m not sick”.
For the british reader, the book gives a facinating, and rather scary insight into healthcare provision in the US. If you haven’t got insurance you are at a serious disadvantage; if you have, it is up to you to find a specialist you trust and ignore rival claims to better treatments! Choice is fine, but what a nightmare for someone who is at their most vulnerable. Thank Bevan for the NHS!
Dr Maria Vaccarella, writes:
Cancer Vixen was originally conceived as a cartoon for Glamour, whose editors had asked their resident illustrator Marisa Marchetto to document her illness. Her cartoons have always focused on women and fashion, so it is not surprising that Cancer Vixen advocates a sort of fashionista approach to cancer. It is not a matter of frivolity or worldliness. What is at stake here is the idea of caring for one’s body and relying on one’s own resourcefulness. So, we learn that Marisa’s daily stylish apparels can function as supporting props: for example, MAC Brave Lipstick is the right accessory to meet her fiancé and tell him about her diagnosis, just like a pair of designer shoes and tabloids can cheer up a chemotherapeutic session.
Cancer Vixen, her alter ego, is a non-conventional comics superheroine, whose extraordinary power is an interiorized strength and whose costume follows the latest fashion trends. Thanks to her irreverent tone, Marchetto avoids the mainstream rhetorical extremes of violent figurations on the one hand and of illness romanticization on the other. She originally reshapes the overrated metaphor of “fighting against the disease” in the light of her own individuality: in the end, the construction of her cartoon alter ego functions as a personalized healing treatment, complementary to medicine.
Listen to an interview with Marissa about creating Cancer Vixen here.