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.