Skip to main content

At 37, Teva Harrison was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.

Let me play around a bit with that far-too-familiar Leo Tolstoy observation about families. All accounts of good health are essentially the same – and ultimately boring. Every tale of illness, on the other hand, is unique, yet has the potential to transform a personal story into a universal lesson. Teva Harrison's In-Between Days lives up to that potential, and then some.

About two-thirds of the way through her beautiful and often arresting account of living and dying with metastatic breast cancer, a mix of words and black-and-white illustrations, comes a drawing that captures the reality of attempting small talk while dealing with a terminal illness. How do you respond when a stranger asks, "And what do you do?" Her various answers ("I'm on sabbatical" or "I'm on leave from work") feel wrong, a bit awkward. In the final panel, she says, "I have cancer. Mostly, I do that." At that point, I nodded, smiled and agreed yet again with her dead-on accurate observations. I knew exactly what Harrison was talking about and, at the same time, was struck by the originality of her insight.

I do not know how it feels to be diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, but I do know how devastating it is to be diagnosed with Stage 3 esophageal cancer. Your world both slows down and speeds up; your sense of normalcy is forever changed. Your emotions expand and shrink, and so much starts to depend on the day, the moment. Your ability to plan, to foresee, to expect, to worry, to be satisfied, is inevitably altered. It is hard – very hard – to describe that transformation as bad, or good, or unfair, or outrageous, or sad, or whatever adjective you would have used before you were told that the abstract idea that you will die some day had just been made all too real.

A diagnosis of cancer changes what might have been as much as it alters the present moment. In-Between Days explores the quotidian details of what chemo, drugs and hospital appointments – both scheduled and emergency – are all about. But, at the same time, through reflection, memory, and story, you get a real, profound sense of who Teva Harrison was before she became the person who "mostly" does cancer. And you realize that who she is, and who she might have been if it hadn't been for the diagnosis, still have much in common.

Harrison's life has been shaped by tragedy. The attacks on Sept. 11 left her stranded in Toronto when flights were grounded. As a consequence she met the love of her life, moved from the United States to Canada, and began a relationship that charges this book with an intense sense of what love means. The book also illustrates, literally and figuratively, how cancer touches every part of us. The disease altered her sense of self, but also led her to draw comics, taking her life's narrative into her own hands. In doing so, and doing it well, she learned, somewhat ironically, that one of the most isolating illnesses is best confronted through sharing, through storytelling, through finding the means to accurately describe the most intensely personal experience a person can probably have. In the preface Harrison writes that "when I was first diagnosed, I didn't want to talk to anybody. I have since learned that it is the unspoken that is most frightening. Shining a light on my experience takes some of the power away from the bogeyman that is my cancer. I am taking my power back."

Ultimately it is that assertion of control, that insistence of taking charge, that provides this memoir with its power. The age of 37 is too young to be told you have terminal cancer – any age is too young for that, arguably – but Harrison demonstrates with humour, with wisdom, with artistry, that cancer is by no means the end of the story. "Really, what shouldn't I do?" she writes at the book's end. "So I am going to say yes even more. Live like a tornado, when I can. I'm going to suck the marrow out of life and see what I've been missing."

Once again, I find myself smiling and agreeing.

Peter Kavanagh is the author of The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times.