Teva Harrison on turning living with incurable cancer into art
A little over two years ago, at the age of 37, Teva Harrison was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. It was incurable. Teva found herself going into a dark place, ruminating. Then she started drawing. She started with tiny flowers, then moved on to drawing comic-strip style vignettes of her life. Those vignettes are the basis of her book In-Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer. This interview originally aired on May 16, 2016.
Shelagh Rogers: How are you?
Teva Harrison: I'm doing really well. Thank you so much.
SR: What does doing really well mean?
TH: It means I am stable. It means that I am continuing on the clinical trial that I've been on for about 17 months. I have mobility and my pain is in control and I am able to enjoy life.
SR: You've had artistic outlets throughout your life, right?
TH: Growing up, we didn't have a lot. We were single-parent family, but one of our constant toys was art supplies. We always had all the art supplies we could have ever wanted, no matter what. When I showed an aptitude, I started taking art lessons. I did art all through school and I went to university for painting and drawing. I had a brief period of time where I was completely a working artist, before I shifted gears and went into arts administration because I wanted a stable paycheque. I'm very passionate about whatever I'm doing and that work sort of took over and I found that I was spending less and less time making art. I would still make things, whether it was sewing projects or crafting projects or cooking or gardening. I like to use my hands, but I was making less and less art leading up until when I got sick.
SR: This was the first time you felt the need for narrative in your art. Why?
TH: I was trying to understand, for myself, what was going on. Becoming a patient, when you don't have a medical background, you have to learn a new language, a new way of using words that I already knew, a new way of explaining what is happening to my body in the language that will get the result that I need. So I had all this new stuff going on and drawing has always been how I interpreted the world, but drawing these comics became a way to clarify my thoughts around what was happening to my body.
SR: What does drawing give you?
TH: It gives me so many things. It gives shape to what I am afraid of. The scariest things are the things in the dark, whether it's the dark of the night or the dark of the mind. I feel that naming things — picturing them, articulating them, giving them shape — actually takes some of the power away from them and gives it back to me.
SR: You say early on that the unspoken things are the most frightening. What does that mean to you?
TH: I'm living with this uncertainty from month to month with my disease. That not knowing, it's very nervous-making. When we don't speak about things, we're almost giving them the power to silence us. When we do speak of them, we find community, we find our way to the people who can help us, who we can be with. By not speaking, we're more isolated, more alone. Which is a very frightening way to be with the disease.
SR: You talk about love. You talk about sex. You're really out there. What does that feel like?
TH: I made a decision with this book that there couldn't be half measures. That if I was going to talk about this, I had to be very real about the harder parts of it. Talking about sex, for instance, was really important to me even though it's the part that made me the most uncomfortable because I don't think we talk a lot about that aspect of what happens when you're a young person and you have cancer. It's incredibly common for young women to be kicked into menopause by chemotherapy. Being told you're going to have some menopausal symptoms is very different from being told "It's quite likely that you'll experience dramatic sexual dysfunction, that you will not know what to do, but there are also solutions available." I think doctors are trying to treat the disease and anything peripheral to that disease isn't as important as slowing the cancer. But in day-to-day life it is important, because it's about quality of life and quality of relationship. And relationships are such an important part of how we're able to live with cancer, or with any disease.
SR: Your family is in the book too.
TH: It was important to me to talk about family, because my cancer is hereditary. To talk a bit about the other amazing people in my family who have been lost because of this disease. I believe that our legacy, how we live on, is in other people, and it was a chance to give that continuance to some people that I love.
This interview has been edited and condensed.