Teva Harrison: Living with Cancer
Confronting her terminal diagnosis, she boldly chronicles her new life, balancing crises with hope, inspiring others like her and their families.
The taste of a fresh blueberry.
The sweet songs of early morning bluebirds.
The symphony of our ever-changing world.
These are things we take for granted. The luscious magic of the world that so many victims of cancer are stripped of. With incurable cancer invading her entire being, one writer/artist has vividly portrayed the minutia of life that the healthy population rarely gets to experience. She is Teva Harrison, and she has stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
Purple eye shadow, a turquoise necklace and matching cardigan adorned her frame as she spoke. With a tender voice that hinted at innocence, sadness, and hope, she spoke. “I am a person who sees beauty in the world… knowing that I have a terminal illness has amplified that… it’s bittersweet, but it’s precious.”
By sharing her personal story, she has shed a spotlight on those who battle cancer day-by-day and the difficulty of those supporting them. Her story is enlightening, helping individuals and families feel slightly less alone. Her poignant and emotional sketches highlight how life’s ordinary tasks have become extraordinary challenges and what used to be simple actions have become heartbreakingly painful endeavors.
Facing a Terminal Diagnosis
Harrison has a warm personality and gives the impression of a flawless bill of health. Her writing and comic illustrations have appeared in publications such as Quill & Quire and The Huffington Post among many others. Born and raised in rural Oregon, Harrison now lives in Toronto with her husband.In 2013, she was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 37 years of age.
Harrison has always been creative as a writer, painter, and cartoonist. Her life is filled working in visual art, publishing, and film, and then taking on the position of Director of Marketing at the Nature Conservancy of Canada. She has also worked as Principal Illustrator for the National Film Board/National Theatre production of playwright Jordan Tannahill’s Draw Me Close: A Memoir. It will be her talent that takes her from dying with terminal cancer to living with it and being a force for those like her.
As she was training to run her second half marathon, pain in her back became increasingly debilitating. This was dismissed as just another sports injury. Increasingly, she was simply prescribed pain killers. It wasn’t until she discovered a lump on her breast that she received her first hellish result, stage 3 breast cancer.
Then she was called in again. After months of debilitating pain and misdiagnoses, the cancer had already spread to her bones and she was given a new diagnosis, stage 4. There was no turning back, there was no cure… Yet, she has persisted and lived far longer than expected, as the average stage 4 patient lives only two to three years. She signed up for a clinical trial offering a targeted therapy that, for now, has kept her cancer from progressing.
“That day, I’ve never felt worse. It felt like an immediate death sentence,” she says. Her bright and inquisitive mind became riddled with hypotheticals and anxiety. During these horrid moments when her efforts were focused only on quieting her churning mind, she pulled out her sketch pad and began drawing. She found this to be the release she needed. Only a few days after she received the news, she embarked on her memoir and graphic novel, In-Between Days.
Her doctor and husband, David Leonard, director of events at the Walrus Foundation, hoped that she would focus her thoughts into something which has always brought her joy. And so, In-Between Days began as a blog in 2015. Almost immediately, her following grew as people instantly connected with her plight. The Walrus, a Canadian general interest magazine, first published In-Between Days as a series of online graphic novels.
Her Legacy of Hope
The work is a sincere account of what she has faced in the shadow of this disease. It portrays what people hardly see. The way she requires help for the simplest things, the way her sex life has been decimated, and how her hopes and dreams are consumed by pain and despair.
“I started drawing to deal with the depression,” she says. “On focusing on something in front of me and drawing my experience of living with cancer and new experiences related to being sick.”
Her intense candid memoir can be tough to read. But this should not be taken as criticism, quite the opposite. Like the cancer and the life it portrays, it’s difficult. She uses a series of one-page cartoons accompanied by short essays as tools to navigate her disease.
Harrison doesn’t hold back. This memoir can be considered a part of her treatment, giving her the freedom to express the turmoil and decompress from the inferno that comes with living with an incurable disease that she understands will be the end of her.
“I have always been fascinated by the viscosity of the spaces between – between people, between ideas, between one person’s understanding of any given word and another’s,” says Harrison in the book.
The style employed in the work is unpolished and raw, evoking the artist’s sharp emotions of fear, exhaustion, and guilt. She shines a spotlight on the details of life with cancer and examines the effect that the diagnosis has on not just her life, but those around her. That is where it can be difficult to read, because it’s too good, too real.
Harrison’s world became more precious after her diagnosis and she illustrated that in her new coloring book she offers at bookstores and online, The Joyful Living Colouring Book. Her artistry focuses on small details that inspire hope and wonder. The coloring book is filled with black and white images of delight and whimsy, everyday objects that offer pleasure, casting away any moments of depression or sadness.
About two hours of her day are dedicated to drawing. Her energy level can rarely take more than that. Additionally, the endless array of doctor appointments and coping with medication cocktails along with the incessant pain her body endures can really take a toll on her stamina.
Only Harrison can find a light in this dark cave of unfortunate circumstances. As she has an incurable form and stage of the disease, she can forgo treatments that carry more lethal risk. She finds gratitude in the small things such as keeping her hair, her taste buds, and the fact that her weight loss could be worse. “I’m smaller than I’ve been since early high school,” she chuckles.
In-Between Days was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, a national bestseller in Canada, and named a best book of the year by CBC, iBooks, The Globe and Mail, National Post, KOBO, The Walrus, and Quill and Quire.
A substantial number of non-profits and health organizations have asked her to speak on behalf of others battling metastatic cancer and their families. Harrison continues spreading her message through art, courage, and persistence. Learn more about this inspirational woman at www.tevaharrison.com.