My husband loves to read the comics. While I was raised to believe cartoons were simultaneously the lowest form of art and literature, they helped him learn how to read. Before the Internet, he read the comics page before he read anything else in the paper. Now he follows them online. One strip, Mom’s Cancer, has made such an impact on him that I got him the complete graphic novel but I wasn’t going read it. Like everyone else, I’ve lost loved ones to this awful disease and the idea of reading about some poor woman’s struggle didn’t send me. Add that feeling to what I was taught about comics as a kid and I decided this was a book to avoid. Well, I was wrong, not just a little bit wrong, but WRONG with whip cream and cherries. Mom’s Cancer is a story that needs to be shared and a strip was the best way to tell it.
In 2004 Brian Fies was just one more baby-boomer in the sandwich generation part of his life (That’s when your kids see you as an adult but your parents still react like you’re a kid.) His parents and his siblings were living mostly separate lives. Then his mother had what seemed like a seizure and the medical searchers found not one tumor but two. A brain tumor (no surprise) caused by metastasized lung cancer. Stage Four. The only reason his mother wasn’t dismayed at first was because she thought there were ten stages of cancer. Her children changed the rhythm of their lives to help her fight the disease.
This kind of story only works (I think) when it’s told with marrow-deep honesty and Mr. Fries pulls no punches. He and his sisters became their Mom’s support system but there were times they found it difficult to pull together. Serious illness makes families want to pull together while their anxiety tears them apart. And since responsibility for Mom was apportioned between three siblings, conflict was inevitable. In the end, the mutual support of their mother was the over-riding factor and that support evidently continued into the creation of this volume. Families can be wonderful, that way.
The words and art quickly point out that the health-care industry could use some improvement. Mom’s initial diagnosis came seriously late because an osteopath didn’t put the evidence together. The family doesn’t get the referral support they need to find appropriate specialists. Then the specialists tend to face this seriously ill and depressed woman wearing jack-o-lantern grins and expressionless eyes. (My husband, a long-time health-care worker himself, thinks these drawings are incredibly accurate and scary.) In the fight to prolong their patient’s life, her quality of life sometimes gets overlooked and cancer victims don’t always learn the degree of permanent change they face, even if they recover. If nothing else, Mom’s Cancer lifts that shade of ignorance a bit. It should be required reading for cancer patients, their families and their doctors.
The art of the book is spectacular in explaining some complex parts of the story (like how a one/fifth decrease in a tumor’s size is really a fifty percent improvement) and highlights some electrifying moments. But at heart it’s a story of people negotiating some of their most difficult days with humor, anger and the occasional moment of grace. It’s full of life, hope and humanity. That’s what makes Mom’s Cancer so worthwhile.