The Phoenix Project: Surviving Cancer

Last year, I was commissioned to create a comic as part of The Phoenix Project: Surviving Cancer, a research project based between the Royal Hallamshire Hospital and the University of Sheffield. Five other comics artists familiar with Graphic Medicine contributed work, including Mita Mahato and Andrew Godfrey – although we didn’t immediately know who else was involved. They can all be seen here.

The project began by looking at issues surrounding cancer, sexuality and relationships. The project team interviewed cancer survivors, asking them about their experiences. Excerpts from these interviews were then given to artists recruited from the graphic medicine community. We showed the resulting images back to the participants and assessed how they addressed their concerns. This work is vital because completing treatment is not the end of a cancer patient’s story: many are traumatised and vulnerable to further medical complications and a host of other concerns. Little is done to address these issues because cancer research focuses on treatment and prevention. These powerful, provocative and moving images have helped survivors come to terms with how cancer has effected their relationships and sex lives. There are many other issues that patients need support with. The Phoenix Project aims to use visual and digital means to address them by developing an holistic package of care, available to all.

(from The Phoenix Project website)

Here is the first page of my response to the brief. The rest can be seen here. PaulaKnight_Phoenix_Normal_p1

The interviews were provided to us as written transcripts, which I personally found challenging to interpret without meeting the people myself. I wonder how much was lost in translation or how much, as an artist, I could have gained in understanding and empathy had I been present at the interviews. Logistically, and for confidentiality reasons, this probably wouldn’t have been possible.

I hope I’ve grasped the right end of the stick with regards to characterisation, for example. I feel that without meeting the people, perhaps there is too much room to subconsciously project self into the interpretation. And, is this a bad thing or a good thing? I might have detected hints of humour in the dialogue of my chosen patient, because that is how I often deal with difficulty myself, and then projected that onto the unseen patient. Indeed, that might also be why I chose to concentrate on that particular patient for the work.

With that in mind, I must point out that I’ve never swung from a chandelier in my life – not for sexual purposes nor to transport myself from one side of a room to another. I doubt the patient has either; it’s meant to make a point – and to provide a little humour and irony when situated with the title ‘Normal?’. And, humour can help with affiliation according to Elizabeth El Refaie, author of Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures.

My own project is autobiographical with a medical theme, so it was interesting to concurrently tackle biographical work with a medical theme – especially with regards to the confidentiality issue since my story also includes others’ medical narratives.

We have yet to be informed of the patients’ responses to the work, and I am quite nervous, but intrigued, about the prospect of this.

9 thoughts on “The Phoenix Project: Surviving Cancer

  1. Written transcripts without meeting the people must be quite a challenge. Logistics and confidentiality are obvious issues, but surely part of the objective of graphic medicine is to explore ways that bring the human element back into the reporting of medical experience. Relying on an anonymous written transcript feels a bit too close to the whole culture of anonymity and distance in medicine. Again, I understand perfectly why logistics and confidentiality are issues here – and, in my opinion, it certainly hasn’t affected the quality of the work (although surely for authenticity’s sake you should have tried some chandelier-swinging in the spirit of research!). I suppose part of the overall challenge of graphic medicine collaborations is to respect confidentiality and manage logistical issues in the documentation of patient experience, but in a way that also enables that human contact between collaborative partners which you point to as being so important for the success of the work. A tall order! But a great project – and some really great artwork and stories from you all!

    • Thanks for your considered reply, John :-). I suppose in this case, the point is that the patients found it hard to talk about the issues even to their closest health care providers let alone strangers who are not ‘medical’ specialists – us. And thinking about it more, I wonder if meeting the people would have made it difficult for me NOT to have breached confidentiality – in the drawings of the characters, for example. ‘Seen’ characteristics might have inadvertently snuck into the drawings and risked identification.

      ps. My current state of health precludes me from chandelier swinging at present – but never say never!

      • That’s interesting what you say about it being difficult to *not* breach confidentiality if you’ve met the person – I hadn’t thought about that. I suppose it’s like being told not to think about a purple elephant. Authors get into difficulty with this sort of thing all the time, don’t they: friends discovering they’ve been “cast” in their novels, etc. Because of issues surrounding confidentiality (and identity), is it then the case that there’s a kind of biographical work that’s particular to medical narrative: a partly or wholly anonymous biography?

      • Hmm, I wonder. I suppose we’re getting into the realms of truth in fiction, as you say, and whether some memories are actually ‘real’ in autobiog/ biog. I can’t think of any partly/ wholly anon biographies graphic or otherwise off the top of my head. Let me know if you think of any! Ooh – Dragon Slippers – autobiog though – under pseudonym.

        I’m mainly thinking about purple elephants right now.

  2. Nice post Paula, and interesting discussion. I’m involved in this project from the academic side. The art work has had a tremendous response from the project participants. I’ll hopefully be writing all this up before the summer. It was really really really difficult to get NHS ethics clearance for Paula to view the transcripts in the first place. Wouldn’t be impossible for artists to work with patients, but some of the issues raised here demonstrate the problems that might cause. Would love to try this again with a variety of different approaches.

  3. Thanks for posting this Paula. The work in both important and interesting. I’m passing this along to colleagues who do work in cancer survivorship, and I think they will be quite intrigued.

  4. Pingback: Laydeez do comics are 5 | laydeezdocomics

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