I’m not a big hater but I hate cancer. I hate everything about this disease. It stole my mother from me too soon. It has robbed so many friends of children and sisters and husbands and loves. And for those of us who have been in the cancer trenches, we know it is an awful disease, in all its hydra-headed forms we but dimly understand. There’s nothing pretty. It’s all about pain and loss — of control, of dignity, of function.
All that is why Teva Harrison, a 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non Fiction finalist, astounds me. Her website presents her as an “artist, writer, and cartoonist.” An American by birth, she lives in Toronto with her husband, Canadian book publicist and Walrus Talks organizer David Leonard. And at age 37, she was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer: the most advanced form that has already spread to other parts of the body. The Canadian Cancer Society gives the five-year relative survival rate as 22 per cent (compared with 100 per cent for breast cancer caught at “stage I” phase).
As is usually the case at Creative Mornings, there was much happy and energetic chatter among the caffeinated morning crowd before the talk began. I’ve never heard that audience quiet down faster than when Harrison began speaking. “The way I recognize time is taking a pause,” she said, going on to lead the audience in Sama Vritti, a breathing exercise often done in yoga where you inhale and exhale for equal counts.
She told the story of how she had worked so hard on her dream job, leading the marketing team for the Nature Conservancy of Canada. “I worked and I worked and I worked,” she said. “I was so tired all the time and my back was killing me.” She assumed the pain was caused by stress and over-work; she was too busy to worry about it. And then, only months after assuming her leadership role, she got the cancer diagnosis. “It had spread,” she told the audience, and her hand then moved around her body, touching five points. “Here, here, here, here — and here.”
I suspect I wasn’t the only person in the audience on the brink of tears.
She told the story then of her cancer treatments, of feeling adrift, of her depression. She started drawing flowers from photographs she had taken of wildflowers while she travelled. She found focusing on something “so short-lived, resilient and beautiful” let her feel joy, again.
She began to document living with cancer in cartoon-style graphics and shared some of these illustration panels those during her talk. Some were heartbreaking. Some were hilarious. She talked about how she has been a vegetarian insistent on not using products tested on animals but she rapidly changed her stance when it came to medications that could possibly control and treat her cancer.
In April 2016, these narrative illustrations were pulled together and published as In-Between Days, billed as a “graphic memoir.”
Also in 2016, she released The Joyful Living Colouring Book. “Having cancer has made the world feel especially precious to Harrison,” the colouring book description says, “and she finds magic and delight everywhere: symbol-enriched heraldry, animals and birds, everyday objects that give her pleasure, foliage and flowers, and a few choice words of inspiration and hope.”
After her 2015 Creative Mornings talk, Harrison handed out 6″ x 8″ cards with a black-and-white border of flora and fauna outlined illustrations around the words, “You have all the time you need.” How could she find beauty amid the terror she faced? I pinned the card to my bulletin board when I got home. Later, I pulled out the pack of markers that normally live in a basket of toys I keep for visiting little kids. I coloured Harrison’s hummingbird and butterfly, her flowers, thought of my mom, and remembered how precious time can be.
Main photo: Kelley Teahen