guest review by Northwestern Medical Student Samantha Estevez, Chicago, IL
Cancer. It is a word that holds an incredible amount of power and immediately conveys a strong message to those who encounter it. We all know someone who has come face-to-face with this word: a relative, a friend, a coworker, or even you. To many, cancer is not just a word or a diagnosis, it is a death sentence. Whether that death is literal in that a person is unable to overcome the mutated cells overtaking their body or whether it is a figurative death of one’s life prior to diagnosis with an evolution into a “new you,” I think anyone would agree with the assertion that cancer changes lives.
Mom’s Cancer. These two words may be enough to scare away some readers. Looking at the cover of Brian Fies’ acclaimed graphic novel, we are faced with an image that brings the reality and humanity of this part of medicine to the forefront. Fies’ book is not a discussion about the science of cancer, it is not a guidebook to the troubles one may face with this disease, and it is not your standard story with a predictable plot. Through this graphic novel, Fies simply tries to make sense of and document the reality of the course of his mother’s illness and how it affected his family. In a sense, it is a case study. This case study not only gets to the heart of a powerful disease but also exemplifies how graphic novels can reach beyond what words strive to achieve.
Coming to this story, I felt like I already knew what was going to happen. After hearing about so many cancer survivor tales, heroic struggles, and failed battles I could not help but unconsciously assume that this story would have a not too happy ending. Especially with the ominous image on the front cover. I felt like I knew the course of treatment, the struggles Fies’ mother would face, and the end result before I even opened the book. These assumptions were shattered within a few pages and I feel that this speaks not only to Fies’ strengths as an author and illustrator but also the power of graphic novels in general. Using both words and pictures, Fies is able to create his own reality and does not feel restrained by the archaic templates and predictable patterns of many stories. He simply tells the reader how it is, how he felt, and how it happened.
Fies is very thoughtful and detailed with it comes to documenting the more medical parts of his story. As a man of science, but not of medicine, his interpretation of his family’s interactions with the medical machine illustrate that we, as providers, still have much to learn. Mixed messages from different doctors contradict and confound one another. As Fies’ mother struggles (and to an extent, fails) to understand her illness she is made to feel less than by providers who belittle her concerns or simply put on a big smile. The pain, fear, and anguish that patients face once they leave the hospital is brought to the forefront throughout the book. This is a part of cancer care that we often do not see the full extent of because we can’t be with our patients at all hours to witness what they experience every second of every day. Having as firm a grasp on this as possible is essential for us to be empathetic, understanding, and caring providers.
I encourage anyone in medicine to take a little bit of time (I promise it won’t be long) and sit down with this wonderful work. No matter what field of medicine you are in, you are sure to encounter cancer and Fies’ perspective may help you not only be a better physician for your patients but a better friend to them as well.