Mom's Cancer
November 20, 2004 11:25 AM   Subscribe

Mom's Cancer. "My mother was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer. I made a comic strip about it."
posted by Johnny Assay (60 comments total)
"Incurable" my ass.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 11:28 AM on November 20, 2004

A perfectly logical response.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:37 AM on November 20, 2004

Thanks for the link Johnny.
Quite an amazing way to deal with a situation like this, making a comic strip.
Reading it or even making one's own comic strip could be helpful for children/teenagers who have a sick parent or a sick sibling.
posted by ginz at 11:53 AM on November 20, 2004

cf. Our Cancer Year?
posted by scrim at 12:00 PM on November 20, 2004

"Incurable" yes. Remission doesn't mean it's cured. It can come back. It happens. You learn not to say "cure" because it only sets you up for a fall later.
posted by Plinko at 12:05 PM on November 20, 2004

Plinko: I think what P_G means is that smoking-induced lung cancer is hardly something one can call "incurable." You could've, you know, quit smoking.
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:11 PM on November 20, 2004

Scary how moving it was. I remember the slow but steady course of my grandmother's lung cancer back in the 80's -- commuting three hours every Friday with the family to care for her over the weekend, driving back Sunday night, scraping together every free moment and trying to learn -- quick and panicked -- about a field of medicine that's suddenly Very Very Important.

Interesting that it's a comic; more and more projects like this are what helps drive the medium out of geek-lairs and suburban basements into the mainstream. There's only so much psychoanalysis of Spider-Man and Black Cat one can stomach, but stuff like this is gut-wrenchingly human.

And, um. Yeah. First comment on mefi ever. Woo.
posted by verb at 12:12 PM on November 20, 2004

That was wonderful. Thank you.
posted by Marit at 12:13 PM on November 20, 2004

Dr. Wu: I see. Although "preventable" and "incurable" don't have the same denotation. Moot point to argue, however.
posted by Plinko at 12:15 PM on November 20, 2004

I cried at its end. A well-told and beautiful story. Thanks.
posted by AlexReynolds at 12:22 PM on November 20, 2004

I think what P_G means is that smoking-induced lung cancer is hardly something one can call "incurable." You could've, you know, quit smoking.

she did quit smoking, but of course, that didn't cure the cancer - it's a complete misuse of words to imagine that "incurable" means "inevitable" or something along those lines.

I took the comment to be responding to the outcome of the comic though. I read the whole thing and assumed it was going to be a story of dealing with death... the end was really surprising, and if it had been fiction would have seemed unbelievable and stilted - but in real life, it's a pretty awesome outcome.
posted by mdn at 12:24 PM on November 20, 2004

This is brilliant but too painful for me to read. Great work, I'm just a wimp.
posted by frenetic at 12:33 PM on November 20, 2004

wow ... that was great
posted by pyramid termite at 12:42 PM on November 20, 2004

Thanks Johnny Assay for mapping what is a scary journey for all - the family and friends as well as the person afflicted
posted by Cranberry at 12:43 PM on November 20, 2004

i'll spare the ckicken soup for the meta-soul quip

wonderful, front to back
posted by mdpc98 at 1:06 PM on November 20, 2004

This vaguely reminded me of the recent film, "American Splendor." I thought the movie was pretty terrible, kind of pandering to the new comic book audience. This was pretty damn good, though, in comparison.
posted by NoamChomskyStoleMyFace at 1:06 PM on November 20, 2004

This is awesome.

Definitely painful to read, but in a good way. This brings back awful memories.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:07 PM on November 20, 2004

the end was really surprising, and if it had been fiction would have seemed unbelievable and stilted - but in real life, it's a pretty awesome outcome

I agree. If this story had been about dealing with the slow death of a loved one to cancer, it may have been perhaps more relevant to most people's lives, but not nearly as rewarding. Hope is strong medicine.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:10 PM on November 20, 2004

I wish my mom's smoking-induced cancer had ended this way. But, as the story mentioned, 95% of the cases don't have happy endings.
posted by tommasz at 1:29 PM on November 20, 2004

My Mum's biopsy results are due on Tuesday. Hope is indeed strong medicine, and this story is a glimmer in the darkness. Good link, thank you.
posted by punilux at 1:29 PM on November 20, 2004

great link.
posted by imaswinger at 1:36 PM on November 20, 2004


I mean, what's going to become of this place? Once you start, *everybody's* going to start posting good links, and pretty soon, we won't have newsfilter and agendafilter and stuff...
posted by weston at 1:37 PM on November 20, 2004

Wow. I thought the poor lady was a goner, really didn't see it coming. Outstanding.
posted by Scoo at 1:44 PM on November 20, 2004

I quit smoking a few days ago, this is at least my 10th time trying to quit. I lie awake at night worrying that I might have hurt myself and it can't be fixed. So this was timely for me.
posted by bigmusic at 1:46 PM on November 20, 2004

Tommasz, I feel you.

Ten years ago, at the age of 45, my mom started getting odd neck and back pains. The doctors couldn't find anything specifically wrong with her, so the assumption was that it was from being hunched over a desk all day. They prescribed more exercise. Walking and golf and such.

Four years ago, my mom quit smoking on her birthday. She went on Zyban and quit, after nearly 40 years. Done. Never smoked again.

August, 2003, just before a trip to Vegas with Dad and my maternal grandmother, she was complaining of stomach pain and nausea. She figured that it was just a stomach bug, and didn't bother to go to the doctor.

It got worse. December 15, 2003 she was diagnosed with a lesion on her left lung. Three days later she was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and it had spread to her lymph nodes, ovaries and liver. Chemotherapy was scheduled for the end of the month.

On Boxing Day, we took her into the hospital. She would spend the next week getting progressively larger doses of painkillers until she was unable to speak. She slept nearly 24 hours a day. The doctors told us that chemo was pointless. We brought her home and called the local hospice to provide home care. Home care, in this case, involved changing her sheets and bedpans until she died, which she did on January 14 of this year.

On December 14th, I thought that my mom would live forever. On the 15th, I found out that she had cancer, but I was upbeat. By the 1st, we had spoken our last words to each other. On Jan. 19th, I was delivering her eulogy.

The morals of the story?

1. Quit smoking.
2. If you're an ex-smoker, you're still at risk of terminal and incurable cancer. So if you have unexpected pain anywhere, see a doctor about it early.
3. If you're at risk of lung cancer, neck pain is a primary symptom. If your doctor doesn't at least suspect lung cancer, fire him.
4. It can be that quick.
5. My family and I came to the conclusion that it being 'that quick' was a helluva lot better for everyone than months or years of hell.
posted by solid-one-love at 1:51 PM on November 20, 2004


That's an amazing story, beautifully told. My father was very fortunate, although his cancer was quite advanced, they were able to remove it with surgery, and we didn't have to experience the chemo and the radiation. Our hell was shortlived.

But even there, I can related to almost everything in this story on a tighter timeline. It played out over half a year, and more doctor's visits than we'd care to think of. We had a helpful aunt who was a nurse with a specialty very closely tied to his cancer, who barnstormed nurses stations and demanded better treatment for him. I remember the feeling that if I just read enough, did enough research, I could figure out what was needed to cure the damned cancer myself. I remember wondering the hell had been wrong with the doctor who had been treating my 70 year old father for bladder problems for *years* but had never screened him for cancer. I remember worrying about my mother, who had to be there every day and live with everything. I remember the tension and the agony as a family that isn't really all that close was forced to be close to each other.

And now, as I sit here crying over this story, I remember how I sat down and cried for hours when I heard the diagnosis and how I cried different tears last year when he had his one year check-up and was still cancer free.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:57 PM on November 20, 2004

Great strip. Lost my Dad to cancer of the esophagus.
posted by dougkess at 2:05 PM on November 20, 2004

Solid-one-love, I'm sorry you went through that. My mom's story, and the length of time it took from the first pain to the diagnosis to her death, was just about identical to your mom's - though for us it was in 1989, and I was 17.

I found the surprise ending hard to relate to, because there was no surprise ending for my mom. But I'm very, very glad the artist's mother is in remission.
posted by Chanther at 2:15 PM on November 20, 2004

Time to stop smoking for me. I need to make sure this isn't a glimpse of my own future.

Extremely well done though.
posted by rooftop secrets at 2:28 PM on November 20, 2004

At first I just stared at the link, thinking I couldn't go through with it, after losing my Aunt and Dad to lung cancer 8 years ago (still seems like yesterday). But I took a breath and dove in. It was very touching and reminded me more of my Aunt's struggle than my Dad's, though neither had a happy ending. Both smoked for thirty years, both quit in 1980, and both were diagnosed a few months apart in 1995. Go figure.

I'm not sure which was worse - a quick decline and death like hers (it was shockingly fast but kind), or a 14 month drawn-out ordeal like his (which gave us more time together but the cancer was devastatingly cruel). Toward the end, if I had known what it was going to be like, I would have documented with a video camera his fight, if it would help even one person quit smoking. It's not like the movies. Going insane. Unstoppable infections. Losing the ability to communicate, but I could see the longing in his eyes. Fish breathing. Body spasms from pain. Mercifully, finally death. Kudos to the comic writer, he nailed quite a few things right on the head. I'm all verklempt, talk amongst yourselves.
posted by NorthernSky at 2:34 PM on November 20, 2004

This cartoon is biased, and does not reflect the positive side-effects of smoking, such as the fact that "it makes you cool" and "it gives you something to do with your hands".

I wish my mother's lung cancer turned out like the comic.
posted by websavvy at 2:36 PM on November 20, 2004

This vaguely reminded me of the recent film, "American Splendor." I thought the movie was pretty terrible,

I thought of that straight away too. The comics are pretty good but the movie was awful.

Anyway, thanks for the link. I'm in tears. I've never touched a cigarette in my life and I'm so glad.
posted by corvine at 2:38 PM on November 20, 2004

Nice work. Too bad the layout seems to be screwed in Firefox.
posted by rushmc at 2:39 PM on November 20, 2004

Clever. Original. Moving. Makes me want to quit smoking. Almost.
posted by zorro astor at 2:39 PM on November 20, 2004

Very moving. My wife went through treatment for ovarian cancer four years ago--successful, thank God--and wow, did this bring back a lot of memories, especially the frustrations of dealing with well-meaning medical staff for whom cancer was an everyday occurrence...
posted by enrevanche at 2:52 PM on November 20, 2004

Just amazing. Thanks.
posted by grabbingsand at 3:00 PM on November 20, 2004

I must admit, I had to call my mom after I finished reading it all. Amazingly well written and such a great surprise ending - certainly not what I was building myself up for.
posted by shawnmk at 3:24 PM on November 20, 2004

Very moving. I'm reminded of my mother's aunt who died several years ago from ovarian cancer -- despite her eventual physical feebleness from rounds of chemo, she never lost her feisty, fighting spirit.
posted by antifreez_ at 3:36 PM on November 20, 2004

Stage four lung cancer. That is what my friend died of back in 2002. Got his diagnosis on Christmas Eve, and was dead the next May.

In order to read the comic I had to cheat and read the end first.
posted by konolia at 4:04 PM on November 20, 2004

Thanks for that link, JA. Best of the Web, indeed.

Now i need to figure out who to share it with. My friend who's mother died of cancer several years ago? My parents, who've lost their parents? My newagey friend who would scoff at chemo and figures diet is the solution to everything?
posted by five fresh fish at 5:02 PM on November 20, 2004

hey bigmusic, I'm on my second day smoke free as well-good luck to you!!
posted by yodelingisfun at 5:07 PM on November 20, 2004

This is a wonderful find.
posted by dejah420 at 5:15 PM on November 20, 2004

Best of the web indeed.
posted by mce at 5:44 PM on November 20, 2004

Old school Metafilter. Thanks.
posted by LarryC at 7:13 PM on November 20, 2004

excellent find indeed
posted by Hands of Manos at 7:13 PM on November 20, 2004

id show it to my mom but id fear the ending is too hopeful to have any real impact. shed just assume that you cant die. shes probably as delusional as the mom in the comic. sigh.
posted by c at 7:33 PM on November 20, 2004

For those of you quitting smoking, keep it up.

I quit smoking more than 5 years ago, after smoking (1 - 2 packs a day) for the eight years prior to that. I did the cold-turkey thing and was successful, where the patch/replacement thing failed for me before.

Here's my view of the process a nut-shell: Quitting smoking consists of thousands of decisions. The biggest one is the first. You make the decision that you're going to quit, and you really mean it. A person, if they look deeply enough inside themselves, can tell when they really mean something, and when they're just going through the motions. If you can make the decision that you're going to quit, and really, truly mean it deep down, that's the first step.

Every decision after that is perhaps smaller, but just as hard (sometimes harder), and just as important. It's not enough to decide to quit once. You have to decide again right after dinner. Then you have to decide again right before bed time. Then you have to decide again when you wake up. And again when you're drinking your morning coffee. And again when you're driving to work. And again when your co-workers are lighting up. And again at lunch time. And again at the pub with your friends. You get the idea.

If you can keep making the same decision each time, then you'll be successful. The problem is that it gets really, really hard to keep making that same decision every time. Even now I get the temptation to pick up a smoke, but I won't. I've known since the beginning that just one smoke would set me back, and that I probably wouldn't be able to recover, and would start smoking all over again. Then I'd have to follow the torturous path to quitting again.

I also knew that I had to quit for only one reason, that being that I chose to quit. I couldn't quit by having cigs kept away from me, because they're in every gas station. I wasn't quitting because my wife disliked it. I wasn't quitting out of fear (all smokers know what waits for them). I was quitting because I knew that I'd be extending my life thereby, and decided it was the right thing for me to do. I did some strange things at first, for reasons that aren't entirely clear to me even now. I kept a pack of cigarettes in my pocket for the first three or four weeks I was quitting. I guess this was because I knew I had to quit even if they were in easy reach, otherwise I'd never make it. I kept a half-carton (that was left when I finally decided to quit) in the bottom drawer of my dresser for the first year. Probably for the same reasons. I didn't protest when others smoked around me.

I also didn't tell anyone about my decision at first. Some say this is a bad idea, but honestly I was so cranky at first that having a bunch of people offering me encouragement all the time would have pissed me off and made me want to smoke more. My wife didn't say anything for the first two weeks out of some sort of fear that she'd say the wrong thing and I'd start smoking again. For those two weeks I am eternally grateful. After those two weeks, I finally talked to her about my decision, and what I needed from her, which was essentially to understand why I was being such a cranky bastard and to not stop loving me during that time. This actually turned out to be an awfully tall order, but one that she ended up filling. I actually remember an amusing (now) incident where she stomped away from me in a rage, dug out the half-carton I mentioned earlier, stomped back towards me and threw the pack of cigarettes at me and yelled "Just SMOKE already!" Which sent me into a fit of giggles at the time. Good times.

If you're like me though (most are, some aren't), you'll be through the most torturous part of the process four months later. Yeah, months. It'll hurt bad again in the sixth month, and then be all downhill from there.

There are some folks out there that have been able to quit easily, and with minimum of fuss. Again, if you're like me, you'll probably hate those people. At least at first.

In the end, however, it is worth it all.

IMHO, of course.
(sorry for the long post, but this subject is one that's near to my heart)
posted by Lafe at 7:46 PM on November 20, 2004

A really interesting and creative way to deal with the family's situation.
posted by livingsanctuary at 8:31 PM on November 20, 2004

Maybe P_G discovered the cure for cancer and just didn't tell the rest of us.
posted by ticopelp at 8:54 PM on November 20, 2004

It's about 5 or 6 years since my mum died of cancer. I can't say for sure because I try not to think about it too much. She had breast cancer. They cut it all away, she had five clear years after chemo, and then a nagging cough turned out to be a metastized tumour in her pleural cavity - her lungs were trying the impossible, to cough up an irritation that was outside. In the year it took to figure out what was wrong, it had spread through her bones. Another year of tamoxifen and piped oxygen and morphine, she hung on long enough to see my sister get married, and a few weeks later she came home from the hospital to die.

About six months ago my dad finished a course of chemo for bowel cancer. He didn't need a colostomy, thank goodness, but he's short a foot or two of lower gut. I still worry about him, but I think he'll be ok.

Reading this just made me cry and cry for the first time in years.

Here's a tip, friends: don't leave it too late to check out that suspicious mole/pain/swelling/bleeding. Better to raise a false alarm than die from inattention.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:28 PM on November 20, 2004

the layout seems to be screwed in Firefox.
Try making your text size smaller, it worked for me

I wish I'd had the resources available in '95 that are here today.
When my father died of colon cancer, it might have made it easier, to be able to share it.
although it seems odd, sharing pain, it's really not.
posted by kamylyon at 9:46 PM on November 20, 2004

It's not about sharing pain, it's about sharing love.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:50 PM on November 20, 2004

An interesting defense of the comic-strip style choice ("Family Circus") by the author, on accessibility grounds. I didn't find it offputting, myself; humor is a defense against tragedy and all that, and it made the characters more compellingly vulnerable to me, and he has a great grasp of spare narrative and graphical metaphor.

Judging by my quick google discovery of the above*, the author Brian comments on blogs that link to him. (Brian, you're about to get a whole lot more! I'm not keeping track of the signup situation, but you can e-mail mathowie if you have a comment or reply to any of the above; he's pretty good about letting people in regardless of the queue if they're the topic of a post in some way.)

* Actually, I was shocked at how few links this has. I know I saw this in an unfinished state a while back -- I wonder where.

My own experience actually turned out a lot like this comic. Last year, my dad was diagnosed with a Stage 0 cancer in his esophagus, a result of years of acid reflux which turned into Barrett's syndrome and then metastasized. During the CT scan they found another spot in the smallest lobe of his lung. In a matter of weeks my dad had no esophagus (his stomach makes a workable one, though) and no smallest lobe. He's now been cancer free for a year. If you get cancer I don't think it can be more painless than that. Even so, it was a physically and psychologically taxing experience and he emerged from it somewhat changed. Modern medical science &c. Human nature &c.
posted by dhartung at 9:54 PM on November 20, 2004

Oh, and I hate doing this, but I forgot to put in that the style reminded me a lot of Will Eisner. If there's any master to imitate, might as well pick a good one.
posted by dhartung at 9:59 PM on November 20, 2004

Will Eisner! Yes, I was trying to put my finger on that.

The fact that the drawings are not overtly doom-laden make the whole thing more affecting.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:04 AM on November 21, 2004

I stopped smoking 31 days ago. Until then no amount of nagging or entreaty by my loved ones moved me in the slightest-- it just just irritated me and made me light up another.

But I'd been thinking about stopping a lot and then I got a call from a life-long friend who told me her mother ( a former teacher of mine and mother-figure) had just died. Cause of death was smoking and alcohol, no question. The amount of time from diagnosis to death was quick--about 3 months. And it wasn't pretty. A brilliant, funny person, she'd become vague and out of it due to brain damage from lack of oxygen.

I went to help my friend, an only child, sort through the house and organize all the things that need organizing. On the train ride from New York to DC I realized I couldn't smoke near her. Not in the house, not outside, not at all. So I slapped on a patch and gutted it out for the five days that I was there. And I thought about my children and my eventual death and I decided to keep on with not smoking and to try to avoid lung cancer. Let's face it: if you get lung cancer it's really embarrassing. I mean, it isn't like you didn't know, is it? And who wants to feel embarrassed and humiliated and stupid for putting their family through that shit on top of being desperately ill?

So I stopped for reasons of tact and because it's one "I told you so" I really don't want to hear and because I was ready.

It's fucking hard. I felt heroic at first but now I find it boring. As Lafe said, the ongoing process of making the same decision not to smoke over and over is tough. It's a grind. It's a bore. It isn't fun.

So thanks for that great link. It was a timely reminder of why I am doing what I am doing.
posted by idest at 7:31 AM on November 21, 2004

That was outstanding on many levels.

Like many things, it appears that one can have a genetic predisposition to cancer which is then (sometimes) set off by an environmental trigger (like smoking). No, smoking may not cause cancer but it triggers it if you have the genetic predisposition. While someone may always be able to point to someone who smoked until they were 90, if there is any history of cancer in your family you are playing Russian Roulette with way more than one bullet in the chamber.

If children are educated with an early view that anyone who smokes is not acting in their self-interest (less tact: "acting stupidly") then they will be less likely to view it as "cool" later in life. Naturally, this is more difficult to accomplish if a beloved Mommy or Daddy smokes - but that's why I am less forgiving of someone in that position who smokes.

People are certainly free to act stupidly, but they have to accept what comes along with it. As a parent, I would say the only thing that could be worse than dying of lung cancer myself would be living to watch a child suffer that fate.
posted by spock at 8:34 AM on November 21, 2004

Great strip; thankfully I read some comments first so I knew there was a happy ending. I'm still pretty teary.

I liked the style; I think graphic novels/comic books are an excellent form of expression, especially for a subject like this where I imagine the art helped the author organize and deal with the issues, in a more abstract way.

(But I loved American Splendor, so, maybe I'm biased.)
posted by livii at 10:56 AM on November 21, 2004

Very well done. As so many in this thread have mentioned, he captured many of the stages of the process very well. For me, it was mom's melanoma and dad's brain tumor. All of the stages on display in the comic looked very familiar. I just wish either of my parents had been the five percent.

Maybe what the writer managed to capture best was the feeling of gravity in the months you watch the decline. As certain moments transpire, you feel them burning into your memory indelibly. In a sense you are grateful that you will not lose this moment in time, that you will always remember the certain sensations you felt at precisely that moment, but you wish this mental filing away was not necessary.

Anyway, thanks. Best of the Web indeed.
posted by Kafkaesque at 9:19 AM on November 22, 2004

Diagnosis isn't the end. It's when the laughing started for me.
posted by cassbrown1 at 5:15 AM on November 26, 2004

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