Getting Graphic About Cancer

Telling cancer stories through comics and graphic novels can be therapeutic for writers, illustrators and their audiences.
MARISA ACOCELLA MARCHETTO felt there was no better way to describe her cancer journey than through a graphic novel, Cancer Vixen.- PHOTO BY SUSAN FARLEY
MARISA ACOCELLA MARCHETTO felt there was no better way to describe her cancer journey than through a graphic novel, Cancer Vixen.- PHOTO BY SUSAN FARLEY
When illustrator Marisa Acocella Marchetto was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2004, her editor at Glamour magazine asked if she would like to write about it. Acocella Marchetto immediately said yes.

Over the next 11 months, she diligently documented the physical and emotional ups and downs of her treatment journey via sketches, photos and tape recordings. “Sketching to me is kind of a nervous tic,” Acocella Marchetto says. “I’m always drawing.” The resulting chronicle was a six-page graphic memoir titled “Cancer Vixen.”

The New York Times profiled Acocella Marchetto when the issue of Glamour featuring “Cancer Vixen” hit the stands, and it wasn’t long before book publishers came calling. Acocella Marchetto signed with Alfred A. Knopf and expanded “Cancer Vixen” into a 212-page hardcover graphic novel, later republished in paperback by Pantheon Books.

With the publication of “Cancer Vixen,” Acocella Marchetto joined a growing number of cartoonists and illustrators who have chosen to tell their cancer stories through a medium associated by many with spandex-wearing superheroes. However, in recent decades, the graphic novel has matured into a powerful and evocative form of storytelling, especially when the subject is as life-changing as a diagnosis of cancer.

It’s a medium that can prove therapeutic not only for those who create the works, but for readers who can relate to the storylines because of their own experiences with cancer.


Cancer may not seem like an acceptable topic for comics, but many of the medium’s most popular creators would disagree. Tom Batiuk, the creator of the daily comic strip "Funky Winkerbean," which boasts an estimated 50 million readers, wrote two separate storylines involving character Lisa Moore’s experience with breast cancer. In the first, Lisa went through a grueling treatment regimen that included a mastectomy, but ultimately survived the ordeal. Several years later, she was devastated to learn that her cancer had returned. She fought as hard as she could, becoming a vocal advocate for cancer research in the process, but ultimately lost her battle. Batiuk’s syndicate supported his decision to have Lisa die, but many readers were outraged, telling the cartoonist they felt betrayed.

More recently, comic book writer Jason Aaron incorporated breast cancer into the storyline of "Thor," one of Marvel Comics’ most popular titles. The original Thor was found unworthy of wielding the mighty Mjolnir (Thor’s hammer), and the mantle was passed to Dr. Jane Foster, Thor’s ex-girlfriend. But there’s a catch: Foster is battling breast cancer, and every time she transforms into the Asgardian superhero, her condition worsens.


Cancer has only occasionally been addressed in comic strips and comic books, but is the subject of a surprising number of graphic novels. Among the first was “Our Cancer Year,” written by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner and illustrated by Frank Stack. Published in 1994, the book-length comic explores a difficult year in the couple’s life, including Pekar’s battle with lymphoma and Brabner’s struggles as his overwhelmed caregiver.

Talk about this article with other patients, caregivers, and advocates in the General Discussions CURE discussion group.
CURE wants to hear from you! We are inviting you to Share Your Story with the readers of CURE. Submit your personal experience with cancer by visiting Share Your Story
Not yet receiving CURE in your mailbox? Sign up to receive CURE Magazine by visiting