The Comic Book Cure for Cancer: Picturing life with an oligodendroglioma brain tumor

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This article was written by Professor Adam Bessie, a professor of English at a Northern California community college, USA, and was first published in the 2016/17 edition of Brain Tumour, the IBTA's annual magazine that is distributed globally and free of charge in 113 countries and at international neuro-oncology and cancer conferences around the world. Read the full issue online and find out more here.

Incredible Hulk comic #107ON my 29th birthday, I was in the stroke ward of a rehabilitation center reading The Incredible Hulk, watching him jump, sprint, run and smash – pretty much everything I couldn’t do, and feared I’d never do again.

Days before, I awoke from a successful resection of an oligodendroglioma (grade II) to find my right side essentially browned-out, as if my electric grid had been severed – there was no more power. My right foot, leg, trunk, arm and hand had been disconnected, and in the place of power, control and muscle, I found an alien entity, a weak and numb bulk of flesh. By stark contrast, my left side was completely normal, as was my mind, my memory, my speech; it was just that half of my body had been powered down.

I’d gone through a reverse-Hulk – from powerful to powerless. I had been a responsible, physically-capable, independent adult: just three days before the surgery, I interviewed with the president of a college for an English professorship, I was engaged, and planning a wedding. I ran daily – indeed, in university, I had run on the cross country team. But after the surgery, I couldn’t run – that seemed impossible. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t go to the bathroom by myself. I couldn’t hold a pen well enough to write my own name. I was in a man’s body, but utterly dependent, thrown back to a child-like state.

However, I could read – and I was compelled to return to The Incredible Hulk, which I hadn’t even looked at since I was a kid. The Hulk – like all superheroes – uses his great power to defend the small, the weak, the vulnerable – that’s why kids love superhero comics, to discover the power that they lack in themselves. And indeed, that’s why, in my weakest moment, I returned to The Hulk. I needed desperately to find a source of power – it was a matter of survival.

I didn’t want to be superhuman – just human would do.

Adam’s comics aren’t comic. (Reprinted with kind permission From "A Scanner Constantly." 2015. Adam Bessie and Josh Neufeld, as first published in Pacific Standard Online @ www.PSmag.com)

Adam’s comics aren’t comic. (Reprinted with kind permission From "A Scanner Constantly." 2015. Adam Bessie and Josh Neufeld, as first published in Pacific Standard Online @ www.PSmag.com)

But I was plagued by doubt. Could I return to my life? Would I be able to teach again? Would I be able to walk down the aisle to get married? Or would all my dreams, my hopes for the future, be as fantastical as a superhero comic book? Was my life over at 29?

Indeed, it was over – after the diagnosis, after the surgery, after the rehab center, my life as I knew it ended. Life after has been more unreal than The Incredible Hulk I read in my wheelchair – which is why I knew I wanted to tell my story in comics.

Outwardly, to the untrained eye, my story followed the typical heroic brain tumour narrative: I overcame barriers, even smashed them as The Hulk might. I learned to walk; I walked down the aisle; I hiked about Mt. Waialeale in Kauai on my honeymoon; I got the tenure track English job – and just recently, was a member of the panel for the tenure track English committee, to hire new full-time professors. This was the same panel, seven years prior, which I had stood before, my future completely and utterly uncertain.

The most fantastic adventure, though, has been fatherhood: we have a son, Sol, a healthy, strong, hilarious four-year old – who himself loves The Incredible Hulk, which we can read together. Every Saturday morning, I run up a hill with Sol in the jogging stroller, talking, laughing, living. In most all ways, my life now is fuller than I could have ever dreamed when I was rolling about in the rehab center.

English professor Adam Bessie hiking with his son Sol

English professor Adam Bessie hiking with his son Sol

This tale would make for a great comic, but like The Incredible Hulk, it would be a sort of simple superhero fantasy: the reality has been far more complex. Every step forward has been an incredible fight, one often not visible, even to my closest friends, and certainly not my colleagues.

Over these same last seven years, my right side has regained power – it’s functional, but still, weak, uncoordinated, and still slightly alien. During this time, I’ve endured two year-long rounds of Temodar, and one round of radiation, all while working full-time. And of course, all along the way, are the constant scans, every three months, with the looming question: will I lose it all now? Is this it? Is my life over at 35?

This tension – between the outward success and the inward struggle – is my inspiration for making non-fiction comics, which have been published in many national outlets, including the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Pacific Standard. My comics aren’t comic; they are pictorial essays for adults, ones that attempt to render visible the invisible struggles of living with brain cancer.

Collaborating with artists, I strive to illuminate my struggles and successes as realistically as possible: I explore my initial diagnosis, the challenge of living under constant scanning, my experiment with medical marijuana to deal with chemo, and what it’s like, overall, to live with an “uncool cancer.” My goal is to show those unseen struggles to the world in all their terror, beauty and complexity.

But most of all, my goal is to reveal my humanity, to show that folks with cancer are more than a disease, more than a ribbon or a wristband, but most of all, people - regular, real people.

This is my comic book cure for cancer.

To see more of Adam’s comics, please visit adambessie.com

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