Books·How I Wrote It

Teva Harrison: How I wrote about my incurable cancer

Teva Harrison explores living with terminal cancer in her graphic novel, In-Between Days.
Teva Harrison is the author and illustrator of In-Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer. (House of Anansi Press/David Leonard)

There are books about living with cancer, and then there's Teva Harrison's In-Between Days. Originally published as a series of comics in The Walrus, Harrison documents her life since being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, an incurable illness, at the age of 37. 

Inspiring, eye-opening and darkly funny, In-Between Days runs the emotional gamut, with comic strips so sharp they feel like a punch to the heart. Below, Harrison shares what it's been like to illustrate her memories in her first graphic novel, which landed her on the shortlist for the Governor General's Literary Award for non-fiction.

Writing into lighter places

I feel like the humour in my strips is really important, partly because humour is an excellent coping mechanism when you're sick. You have to be able to laugh at things. But the first comics were more about dark places. I started from darker places and then started to find more and more and more absurdity. I think that humour increased as my comfort level with my new normal has increased. I'm more able to relax into it.

The mechanics of being comfortable

It's important to be at the drafting table when I'm doing serious drawings because I do have metastases in my spine, which means being comfortable is really difficult and pretty crucial.

I have to take a lot of standing breaks because standing is easy and sitting is challenging. I have quite regular acupuncture, which helps a lot. One of the drugs that I'm taking gives me joint pain and the joint pain can really make drawing difficult. I have sort of a limited number of hours I can draw before my hand seizes up, which forces me to take breaks and work a little more slowly. Acupuncture helps a lot with that; it keeps my hand from being a gnarled claw, so I can keep drawing, which is important to my mental health.

Family matters

Because I have a section in the book about my family, I had some incredibly beautiful conversations with the members of my family who were closest - biologically - to the people I wrote about, like my cousin, whose mother died of breast cancer, and my great aunt, whose sisters and father died of cancer. I had the opportunity to ask them to tell me stories and also then to come back with what I'd done and share it with them. In a couple of cases there were some tweaks, but that dialogue about remembrance and celebrating their lives was really important to me - and I think it was good for them, too. It's only brought us closer as a family to have this excuse to share and remember. I think it's spiralling into more family documentation, which is a fantastic benefit.

When it came to the conversations themselves, some of them were really hard. Like my uncle, who told me in quite a lot of detail what the last period of my aunt's life was like. It was really generous because I could see he was really reliving something that was difficult for him. So I feel a lot of gratitude to my family for being so open to the project and being so generous with their memories.

Giving shape to the shapeless

I deliberately didn't really look at other people's work while I was working on this, because I didn't want to feel like I was borrowing. It was important to me that I just be with my own thoughts. Although I was always an artist, this is the first time I've drawn cartoons. In the beginning I was just drawing for myself. It was about having the thoughts and clarifying them by bringing them out in the open. I've found it interesting to see where it evolves.

Teva Harrison's comments have been edited and condensed.