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Emotional book explores living with cancer

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Teva Harrison drawing 'In-Between Days'
Teva Harrison draws scene from 'In-Between Days'

In-Between Days, a graphic novel that combines comics and short essays that explore what it is like to live with incurable cancer, is, all at once, heartbreaking and heartwarming, revealing and honest, all the while showcasing how beautiful and unfair life can be.

Diagnosed in 2013 at the age of 37 with stage four metastatic cancer, for which the median survival time is about two to three years, Teva Harrison sat down with The CJN to speak about her heavy-hitting, profoundly personal and emotional work in her west Toronto home (in front of a plate of homemade vegan, gluten-free cookies and a pot of chamomile and lavender tea).

Harrison explained that when she took to the Internet to learn as much as she could about her illness, statistics and clinical information abounded, but when it came to finding literature about living with terminal cancer, she couldn’t.

'In-Between Days'
‘In-Between Days’

“There really wasn’t… something that addressed the emotional side, as opposed to the clinical, and I felt like that might be something I could contribute, that might be helpful to other people.”

She explained that the book came about soon after she started a blog to share the comics she had drawn to illustrate her challenges, fears and experiences living with incurable cancer, with the intention of helping others.

She said a month later the Canadian magazine The Walrus offered to post the comics on its site, and a month later she was contacted by publishing company, Anansi to discuss the possibility of turning them into a book.

“The book wasn’t my idea at all at first,” she said.

She said she agreed to do it, “partly because a book is such a fantastically tangible legacy.”

Page from 'In-Between Days'
Page from ‘In-Between Days’

The memoir, which explores life with illness, as well as her relationships with her “perfect husband” and loving family, is full of dichotomies, such as balancing hope with pragmatism, or managing pain, while avoiding medicating to the point of sensory numbness.

One of the essays highlights an identity crisis brought on by her survival instinct. As a lifelong vegetarian, Harrison would not use products that were tested on animals – except for cancer drugs.

“I had people who were angry that I’m a vegetarian, but I am for animal testing for cancer drugs,” she said.

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When asked if writing the memoir made it harder to distract herself from her illness, she said, “I’m going to be honest, I can’t distract myself from it. It’s a pretty consuming thing. I’m at the hospital every week, I take drugs everyday that are thankfully, right now, keeping my cancer stable, but it is front of mind, regardless of whether I process it or not. I think that, for me, looking straight at something makes it more manageable than looking away. Processing in a really proactive way, what is going on with me, has been really helpful in terms of my mental health and stability.”

What keeps her going is a kind of pragmatic hope that allows her to move forward and live her life as best she can.

Page from 'In-Between Days'
Page from ‘In-Between Days’

“If I didn’t have hope I don’t know how I could move forward and that hope is in some cases, very practical. Like, I hope I feel well now, I hope I can have the vacation we’re planning, I hope I can carry through the promotion for this book, and some of it is big hope. When I see things like advances in immunotherapy or new clinical trials and new types of approaches to slowing the advance of the disease. But I’m also realistic. I come from a family with a lot of cancer and I’ve watched people die.”

Harrison said she’s proud of the book, and her courage to share some of the more difficult aspects of her illness, including sexual dysfunction.

Teva Harrison
Teva Harrison

“That was the hardest part for me to talk about, and that was the hardest part for my husband to let me talk about, because our friends are going to read this book, and our family, and it is very personal, but it’s also something within the cancer community that people don’t talk about enough,” she said.

“I’m also really happy that I was able to take that digression and talk about my family. I believe that we live on in other people and I am in such deep respect and awe of the things my family have done, the way they’ve lived in service, and being able to contribute to their continuance was really meaningful to me.”