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The Cancer Vixen herself. Photo by Jeremy Balderston.
When graphic novelist Marisa Acocella Marchetto was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, she didn’t have health insurance. But she had supportive friends and doctors, a good strong will — and a creative outlet that also helped get her through, which became Cancer Vixen, a graphic novel about the whole experience, including the pain, tedium, and terror of treatment and weird scenes pertaining thereunto (like the woman who hit on her fiance in her presence — “I’m not sick, call me”). After a healthy hardcover run, Cancer Vixen is now out in paperback.
When she got cancer-free, Marchetto did something else: established the Cancer Vixen Fund at St. Vincent’s Hospital, where she had her treatments. Through the Fund she and the Hospital provide semi-annual free, state-of-the-art breast cancer screenings. The latest one is this Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and you can schedule an appointment at 1-888-44-CANCER.
We talked with Marchetto about how writing the book helped her get through, and how other women — young, older, insured, not insured — can benefit from early treatment and a creative approach.
How’s your health?
Great! I was lucky enough to catch breast cancer early — three weeks before I was about to get married. I went to my doctor, Dr. Paul Goldstein, who is amazing, and he was giving me a routine chest exam and his stethoscope bumped into a lump… I walked into his office thinking I had a cold, and walked out wondering if I had cancer.
The tumor was found May 13, 2004, and I finished treatment in April of 2005. Actually I found something, a lump, when I was swimming in April of 2004, but I ignored it because I was just hoping it was a pimple of something, because I didn’t have health insurance…
Thank God I was put on my husband’s insurance. And Dr. Goldstein and [cancer surgeon] Dr. Christopher Mills were calling me every single day, adamant that I get treated even though I didn’t have health insurance. They are amazing people.
98 percent of the time, if you find breast cancer early, you can beat it. Early detection is the closest thing we have to a cure. But women disgnosed with breast cancer who have no insurance have a 49 percent greater risk of dying from breast cancer. If they’re diagnosed with cancer, they are unable to fund the treatment.
If you don’t have insurance, that increases your risk of not making it — the later it’s found, the less chance you have if you do get treated. So it’s really crucial that all women, whether they have insured or not, get screened and get their mammograms — and that women in their 20s do self-exams.
What kind of reactions did Cancer Vixen get from women who’d been diagnosed with breast cancer?
I get letters every day still… When I started writing the book I just didn’t want to hold back. I wanted to be as honest and as upfront as possible, and to demystify the process so women who go through it will know what to expect. And women have written to tell me that they did know because they read Cancer Vixen. One told me, “You wrote exactly what I was thinking. How’d you get in my head?” Another said, “I wore my favorite pair of shoes to the doctor because you did.” It’s about taking control, thinking of myself as a vixen, not a victim.
What made you start the Fund?
I was so grateful that I was able to get insurance through my husband, and so grateful to my doctors at St Vincent’s, that I felt a sense of obligation and enormous gratitude. When I recived the book advance I put money aside to fund the first free mammography screening — it was this week in 2006. This is the thrid. Now we screen women twice a year, and it’s growing. We just want to put the word out and screen as many women as possible.
How did the experience of writing Cancer Vixen help you as an artist and as a cancer patient?
This is my second graphic novel, and I think it defintiely strengthened ny work, just because I put it all down. Also there’s something kind of interesting that happened: When I started writing the book I actually felt I would never put the word “my” in front of “breast cancer.” But putting it on paper was a way of externalizing it. My husband told me it’s called “objective journalizing.” It’s cathartic. That’s why I say, “Get it off you chest, girls, write write write!” It’s good to get it down on paper, it helps you in a weird way.
[For example], when Dr. Mills said he was doing a biopsy because “we need to see if the cancer cells are angry,” I went back to my drawing board and drew all these little cancer cells making faces and giving me the finger. I was able to laugh at the cancer instead of being afraid of it.
Also, when you’re a cartoonist you can draw yourself as a cancer-kicking superhero. When I drew myself as a vixen, because I was able to think it and see it, I was able to take on that persona and become it. Anyone can do it! Use PhotoShop and put your head on a superhero body. Or just do a board of imagery, just imagining yourself stronger if you’re going through something like that…
Anyway you’re able to, transform the energy frm a negative to a positive. it’s important to do that — instead of seeing yourself as a victim, become a vixen.
Get those free mammograms, ladies! And go here for a list of Cancer Vixen events and fundraisers, including the annual gala on Oct 28, 6:30-9:30 at the Little Red Schoolhouse.