Living Well With Metastatic Disease: Controlling Fear, Finding Joy
Teva Harrison was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer at age 37. Born and raised in rural Oregon, Teva currently lives in Toronto with her husband.
Listen to the podcast to hear Teva talk about:
how she changed her mind about being public about her diagnosis
how she controls her fear and finds joy and beauty in her life
the things she’s saying yes to and how they are making her happy
what leaving a legacy means to her
Teva Harrison is an artist, writer, and cartoonist who was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer at age 37. She is the author of the bestselling, critically acclaimed graphic memoir, In-Between Days.
Teva is a Canadian Magazine Award and National Magazine Award finalist whose writing and/or comics have appeared in The Walrus, Quill & Quire, Huffington Post, Carte Blanche, The Humber Literary Review, The Globe and Mail, and more. She is a regular commentator on radio, television, and in newspapers, including CBC Radio, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, and The Agenda with Steve Paikin.
— Last updated on June 29, 2022, 2:48 PM
Jamie DePolo: Hello, everyone. I’m Jamie DePolo, I’m the senior editor here at Breastcancer.org. Welcome to our podcast. Our guest today is Teva Harrison, who is an artist, writer, and cartoonist who was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer at age 37. She is the author of the best-selling, critically acclaimed graphic memoir In-Between Days. The book was short-listed for the Governor Generals Literary Award for non-fiction.
Teva is a Canadian Magazine Award and National Magazine Award finalist whose writing and/or comics have appeared in The Walrus, Quill & Quire, The Huffington Post, Carte Blanche, The Humber Literary Review, The Globe and Mail, and more. She’s a regular commentator on radio, television, and in newspapers, including CBC Radio, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, and The Agenda with Steve Paikin.
Born and raised in rural Oregon, Teva currently lives in Toronto with her husband. Teva, welcome to the podcast. We’re so delighted you can be here today.
Teva Harrison: Thank you so much, Jamie. I’m so glad to be here.
Jamie DePolo: I know that... I’ve seen interviews with you, and you said after you were diagnosed you really didn’t want to tell anybody about the cancer. And clearly you’ve changed your mind. What made you decide to start talking about being diagnosed with metastatic disease?
Teva Harrison: Really, the work that ended up becoming the book also motivated me to share. I started doing these drawings, these comics, as a way of sorting out how I could move forward in a positive way with this diagnosis and live my life to the best of my ability: full of joy, and hope, and wonder, and all the things that make life rich and delicious. And I was drawing these comics trying to make sense of things, but they were really just for myself.
I have... I have... I’m sorry. I’m stuttering on that because quite recently both of these women died, but I have two dear, dear friends... it’s hard, I can’t speak of them in the past tense. I just can’t do it. Two dear friends who both had metastatic breast cancer as well, both my age, I showed the comics to them and both of them had an immediate reaction of, “These could help people.” And hearing that changed the way I thought about it.
I had to sit with it for a while, for a couple months, before I was ready to actually take the leap and start sharing the work, but that, in the back of my mind, that, “You could be helpful. You could helpful to some other woman who is feeling alone, feeling hurt and scared, and unsure of how to move forward.” And that motivation pushed me to share the work and be public with my cancer.
Jamie DePolo: When you were first diagnosed did you look for things like your book to help you, and did you find them?
Teva Harrison: I did look for things like my book. I don’t know if they would have needed to be explicitly like my book, but something that talked in a real, direct, limited-metaphor style about the quotidian experience, the daily experience of living with this disease and what the implications would be for my life, my marriage, my sex life, my ability to interact with society. And I couldn’t find that resource for me, and that was another really strong driver to share the work.
Jamie DePolo: The one thing I found very different and very moving about your book was that you do talk about everything. You know, your family history, yourself, your sex life, how you feel when people say, “Oh, what do you do?” I have another dear friend who has been living with metastatic disease for about 9 years, and that was her thing, “When people say, ‘What do you do,’ and I say, ‘Well, I manage my cancer, that’s my full-time job.’” And when I read that in your book, I’m like, “Yeah, I get that.”
Now, this is a very graphic memoir. You are a cartoonist, and you talked about in the preface the drawings came first and then you kind of felt they needed a narrative. So, you’re an artist, you communicate visually. Why did these need words in your mind?
Teva Harrison: I felt like people needed breathing space between the comics. There’s the opportunity to elaborate, but also the opportunity to take a little bit of a break. On their own, it’s kind of... you feel kind of beat up. It’s a bit... which, you know, I do! So, to be fair, that might have been a really true way of sharing the work. But I felt that for a reader, there needed to be some sort of a flow in and out. And I think that the prose brings something different to what the comics bring, and that either of them alone, I don’t think would have been as strong.
Jamie DePolo: When you were creating the book, writing the book, did you draw everything first and then do the narrative or was it kind of hand-in-hand?
Teva Harrison: I drew everything first and then I wrote.
Jamie DePolo: So, you kind of had a map of what you were going to say, in a sense.
Teva Harrison: Yeah, it gave me an opportunity to spend a little bit more time with the ideas. To have a bit of a response or to invite people deeper into my story. Because I think if we’re going to get people to care about metastatic breast cancer, they need to know about us. And they need to know about us in a way that is intimate, and true, and real, and shows the way we’re living as hard as we can.
Jamie DePolo: What has the reaction been to the book? I know you said you wanted it to help people who have been diagnosed and also people who have not been diagnosed kind of understand what it’s like to be somebody with metastatic disease. So, I guess I’m wondering, are the reactions different from, say, women who have metastatic disease and everybody else?
Teva Harrison: There are a few tiers of reactions. Women with metastatic disease do a lot of nodding, a lot of like, “Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.” In fact -- and quite a number of women, and this is the ultimate compliment to me -- have said, “I have bought copies of the book to give to my family and said, ‘Just read this. I don’t know how to tell you, but I want us to be able to talk about it. And maybe this can help us talk.’” And that, to me, is the ultimate benefit of the book, first make someone feel less alone and then give them the opportunity to talk to the people they care about.
A lot of people who love people living with metastatic disease have told me that it helps them understand a bit more about what their day-to-day life is, what they’re going through.
And then there’s this other group of people I wasn’t expecting, people living with depression, or chronic pain, or other kinds of terminal illness who have found something in the book that has been useful to them, who have come to me to tell me so.
Jamie DePolo: I could see where that would be incredibly helpful, because it’s so real. Your book is so real. I read it, and this may be presumptuous, but I felt like I kind of knew you, because everything was so personal and so like, “Yeah, I could hear her saying that.” So, I think it just has this immediate connection with people.
You do talk a lot about that living with metastatic disease is living with fear, but you also talk about living well and seeing beauty in the world. And how do you manage to sort of contain that fear so you’re able to see the beauty, enjoy the beauty, enjoy your life? Because it has to be incredibly scary, but you seem to have quite a bit of joy in your life.
Teva Harrison: You know, it’s interesting. I was just thinking about this yesterday, about how getting a diagnosis like this, for me, has really lit a fire. It’s lit a fire where I am desperate to get everything that is uniquely me out into the world. The things that only I can do. The things that mean the most to me, whether it’s creating art or having an experience. And I’ve been quite lucky in that I’ve been able to go on some trips. My treatment has been... it’s allowed me to travel a fair amount since my diagnosis. I’ve been as far as South Africa. I’ve been able to see giraffes in the wild, which is a childhood dream that I honestly didn’t think I was going to get to have when I got this diagnosis.
So, to me, it’s breaking it down into small bites and always having something to look forward to. So, as soon as something happens, my husband and I say, “Okay, what are we planning next?” What is the next -- whether it’s a concert or a trip, it can be something very small, it can be something very big, but it’s always having something beautiful to look forward to. And also filling my days with the things that matter the most to me: my family, my art, my friends, my garden -- you know, the things that give me a visceral, immediate joy as opposed to relying on long-term gratification like I was before diagnosis.
Jamie DePolo: Would it be fair to say that you’re not necessarily putting things off, like, you think about, “Oh, I would like to go see the giraffes, but maybe I’ll wait 6 months,” but now you just do it?
Teva Harrison: Exactly. Exactly. And that doesn’t eradicate the fear, but it balances it. The fear is just there, and I meditate. I do... I walk a lot. I find going for really long walks can help sort of wear it down. If it comes to me in the night and I can’t quiet it, I used to lie in bed and let the thoughts take over, now I get up and I -- maybe I read a book. Maybe I do something, something that occupies my mind with something besides the fear of my next scan or the biopsy I’m having on Monday, or you know, all these things that are unavoidable, and they’re just part of living with this disease. And to be fair, I wasn’t as good at this 3 years ago. Every month I get better at managing my own emotions around the disease.
Jamie DePolo: I know some people have told me that they’ve sort of given the fear a name or a shape or a being, just so they could kind of, I don’t know, stomp on it or punch it if they want to. Have you done anything that? Is that helpful?
Teva Harrison: Not... I haven’t done anything explicitly like that, but within my meditation practice I do something called turning into the aversion. So it’s... it can be meditating directly on the fear, it can be meditating directly on pain, if I have a particularly strong pain in one of my bone metastases or some other kind of physical discomfort. Because I do find that that shining some light on it, bringing it out into the open, looking directly at it as opposed to trying to avoid it takes some of the power away from the fear.
Jamie DePolo: In the book and even just now, you talk a lot about balancing, like the balancing between just enough pain medicine so you have a good day, but not so much that you have to stay in bed all day because you’re too sleepy. Or the hope that you need to get up and live every day with the pragmatism that you need to deal with bad news. Or the enormity of your dreams with the reality of kind of parceling out your life in 3-months chunks between scans. So, is this a conscious thing or does it just... is it just how you live your life now? Because I was very struck by that, that you seem to be very good at it. There are a lot of things going on, and you seem to be balancing very well.
Teva Harrison: Thank you! It doesn’t always feel that way, but I feel... I do think that I’m... I have always been an optimistic person. I’ve always been one of those people who gets accused of being a Pollyanna. And I’m grateful to have that aspect to my personality now because it supports getting through it. I have had struggles in the past with my emotions, with sadness, and I’ve had, even prior to cancer, I’ve had to learn how balance is better. How bringing in both aspects creates a more fulsome experience and richer life.
You know, it is absolutely crucial. Too much hope and I’m vulnerable. Too much hope and I’m vulnerable to far greater falls into despair than if I can manage to keep things at more of an even median.
Jamie DePolo: That makes perfect sense. For you, today, just living your life, what does it mean to be comfortable? How are you comfortable?
Teva Harrison: That’s a really interesting question. I automatically split into two things, physical comfort and emotional comfort. I’m never actually completely physically comfortable. That’s just going to be my reality unless I’m willing to take so many pain drugs that the world’s a bit of a blur. In fact, my palliative nurse sometimes rightly accuses me of undermedicating because I’m so desperate to feel that I won’t always dull enough pain. It’s the bone metastases that are the largest problem. I have a sacral metastasis. That means sitting is a challenge. Lying down is a challenge. Standing is okay, but one can only do that for so long. So, I live in a lot of physical discomfort, but it’s become okay. It’s just become a baseline at which I operate, and there’s a lot I think I’m willing to accept in terms of discomfort to continue to live and experience life.
There’s not as much I’m willing to accept in terms of emotional discomfort. When I do readings I always read about how... the little passage that talks about how this cancer patient doesn’t want to talk about dead cancer patients. Because I very quickly learned after the first couple of times I did readings that people really wanted to unpack, and absolutely I want them to. I want them to in a safe, appropriate place where a professional who can actually help them can help them. If they want to talk to me about their personal experience, I absolutely want to relate, but that sadness and despair I feel when I hear about people’s cousins or grandmothers or sisters who have died of the disease that I’m trying so desperately to continue to live with can throw me.
And it can throw me into an unbalanced place, so I’ve learned to head some of those conversations off at the pass, and say in a kind and gentle way, “I can’t have this conversation. It’s not possible for me to be this person. I can recommend some resources, but I can’t be the person who talks to you about this.” And there are a few other things like that. Sometimes people want to ask really probing questions about my disease, and sometimes I’m perfectly okay with that, and sometimes I’m not comfortable with it. So I’ve learned to not just say, “Okay, I’ll talk to you about whatever you want to talk about,” but to protect myself, and that is being comfortable to me. Feeling safe and protected in my own space.
Jamie DePolo: And probably very empowering, too, because you’re back in charge. And I don’t mean to say that you’re not in charge, but when you kind of put yourself out there, your story, it does add a certain amount of vulnerability because, as I said earlier, people do feel like they almost know you. So, they can perhaps ask something that’s more personal than is really appropriate or say things that are perhaps not appropriate. So if you have that power to sort of say, “No, I can’t have that conversation,” that is a very good thing. That’s probably something that...
Teva Harrison: We all need.
Jamie DePolo: Well, yeah! I was thinking that we all need, and especially anyone with any chronic illness or a thing that they are dealing with for long, long, long periods of time. Because it can be tough if you have a down day to sort of face those things.
There was a passage in the book where you talk about [how] you have nothing left to lose, so you’re going to say yes even more, and I love that. I love that. So, what have you been saying yes to? Are there things that you’ve surprised yourself that you’ve said yes to?
Teva Harrison: Yeah! Actually, I’m working on a really neat project right now. A playwright approached me and he had heard me talking about time, and it was vis-à-vis my diagnosis, and his mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer 2 years ago and he’s been interviewing her ever since. And he approached me to collaborate on a project. But it’s out of my comfort zone, not because of cancer, but because it’s a virtual reality project, and he wanted to invite me to be the illustrator. And I had no experience whatsoever operating in a virtual reality environment as an artist, but I said, “Yeah, absolutely, I want to do that!” Instead of saying, “Oh, I don’t think I can, I think I need some experience first,” I said, “Are there supports if I need help?” And he said, “Yes!” And I said, “I’m in!” and it’s been such a cool project.
We put together the proof of concept in collaboration with the National Film Board in Canada and the National Theatre in the UK, and that proof of concept was invited to the Tribeca Film Festival as part of their VR sidebar. So all these possibilities, things that I might have just had the tiniest hesitation that would have held me back in the past, I’m just saying yes and figuring it out, and they by turn are opening up more possibilities for me.
To be honest, the book was one of those. I wasn’t the person planning to write a book. It just... I said yes because it was the right thing for me to do, and it has opened all kinds of possibilities for me.
Jamie DePolo: That’s... oh, that’s wonderful. So even though the cancer has perhaps put more fear in your life, it sounds like you’re getting rid of a lot of these other kinds of fears that would have stopped you from doing things, which is pretty incredible. What is the status of the virtual reality film? Is it -- and I’m probably going to misspeak because I don’t really understand a lot of virtual reality stuff -- is it technically a film, and is it going to be made?
Teva Harrison: It’s technically a play, so it’s... the timeline is a little soft while we’re working on it, but we’re aiming for the beginning of next year to have a final piece in London.
Jamie DePolo: That’s very cool. I’m going to have to watch out for that.
Teva Harrison: Thank you so much.
Jamie DePolo: I have one more question for you, and it seems appropriate that this is the last question. You do talk a bit in the book about a legacy and leaving a legacy. And I know from discussions that people have had in our chat groups and things people have said to me that a legacy can be very important to many people and what they’re remembered for or how they’re remembered. What does a legacy mean to you?
Teva Harrison: It means a number of things, but the first thing is how we live on in other people. It’s... and to me that’s how we live on in other people in terms of, have we been kind? Have we helped further something? Have we helped further a conversation? Have we helped build something? Have we helped other people to achieve their full potential? Have we done so ourselves? It can be something very small. The book is definitely functioning as a piece of my legacy, and to me it’s also important because I had this opportunity to share that legacy with my family members who died young. Who had been living really beautiful lives until they got cancer.
A legacy is... it doesn’t have to be something you can hold though. It can be something that’s carried on in someone’s heart, and that’s the biggest part to me. It’s how I live on in other people who I’ve known, who I’ve loved, who I’ve been lucky enough to be loved by. I can’t have children, so my nieces and nephews are part of my legacy, the relationships we’ve had.
Jamie DePolo: That’s very beautiful because some people think of it as a thing, but when you say how you live on in other people that’s... I really like that definition. I think that’s very beautiful and appropriate.
Teva, thank you so much for joining us on this podcast. It’s been so wonderful to talk to you, and I’m hoping that we can have you come back when the play opens next year because I would love to hear how that all turned out.
Teva Harrison: Oh, I would love that. Absolutely! Oh, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you again for having me.