The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

The Botany of Breast Cancer Awareness Month

by Naomi VolainPatient, Breast CancerFebruary 25, 2022View more posts from Naomi Volain

It’s a wonderful coincidence that elephants are my favorite animal. My elephants, my cancer, were lurking inside my private rooms. I’d been very reluctant to go public, to put a big reveal out into the world that I have breast cancer. I didn’t want to post an announcement online about my cancer. People who knew me, knew I wanted to keep quiet. Aside from feeling private about my diagnosis and treatment, I didn’t want to be swallowed up and spat out by the maw of social media’s well intentioned, but shallow, unhelpful words — thoughts, prayers, strong, fighting, hero, beating it. You know. So, this Comic was my way of telling the world I have cancer.

 I’m a high school science teacher creating Comics to teach science. My Comics have focused on plant awareness, how they impact Earth’s sustainability, scientific research, and how they connect to people personally. I have HER2+ breast cancer, and was treated with Taxol, the chemotherapy originally derived from the Pacific Yew tree. It was obvious to me that there was a cartoon in this. But I hesitated. Did I want to be in the Comic? I’m a character in all of my other work.

 I went forward and posted this Comic on my website and on social media late October 31st, 2021, the last day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It was a scary decision, because the person in the last cartoon panel (lower right), is me getting my infusion. Coinciding with this last week of October also concluded my 12 cycles of Taxol and Herceptin weekly infusions.

Releasing this Comic marked an intersection, a turning point for me, because I’d decided to write a graphic memoir on my breast cancer while teaching its science. I realized I could be very deliberate in how I communicated the science, the emotion, the experience, and the art.

And so of course, I’d have to let the world know I have breast cancer if I actually wrote a book about it.

Backing up. One of the many reasons I became a high school teacher was because I wanted to give my students what I didn’t get as a teenager. I wanted to be present, to guide, and to teach warmly, in a stable place. When I was 12, my mother died of ovarian cancer (my grandmother and aunt too). There were so many gaps while growing up; I hadn’t even gotten my period at that point.

Being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer myself echoed how I’d felt as a teenager experiencing cancer in my family. Confused, not knowing how and where to find support, I was seeking to understand it all. I wanted to make meaning. Creating this Comic brought me to the epiphany that my illness was way larger than me. In the United States, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s far reaching for many women and the people in their lives.

This Comic is the starting place for my graphic memoir. I want to engage, entertain and teach breast cancer patients and all cancer patients. I want us all to heal. There will be talking tumors. There will be a chemo kitty. And the elephants will charge.

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