Author Interviews
3:18 pm
Sat May 3, 2014

Drawing From The Experience Of 'Indolent But Relentless' Cancer

Originally published on Sat May 3, 2014 4:27 pm

A few years ago, the cartoonist Matt Freedman started having nagging pain around his ear. He bought mouth guards and tried pain relievers, but nothing seemed to work. Slowly, the pain got worse. In 2012, a bump appeared on his neck. It was a slow-growing, dangerous cancer that had already spread to his lungs.

As Freedman entered treatment for the rare oral cancer, he began to keep a daily journal in words and pictures. It's part cartoon, part personal history. Each page is filled with drawings, diagrams and explanations of everything from the technical details of proton therapy to the interior thoughts of the author.

That journal, kept over 60 days of harrowing radiation and chemotherapy, became his new book, Relatively Indolent But Relentless: A Cancer Treatment Journal. The title comes from a phrase doctors used to describe his slow, destructive cancer.

"I think a lot of people who have this particular type of cancer — which is, as I say indolent, and yet relentless — live with it for a long time because it creeps up on them slowly," Freedman tells NPR's Arun Rath, "like a slowly boiling frog. You don't jump out until it's a little too late."


Interview Highlights

On writing a book using journal entries

I'm an artist and a writer, and I've used a kind of incremental writing process and drawing process over the years to sort of accumulate material ... Since I'm too indolent to create in a spurt, I have to be relentless and produce them over time. I didn't think of it as a book or a journal to share, but simply as a kind of experience — a sort of souvenir of some sort, I suppose.

On the design of the book

Part of what I thought was important about the book — once I started to think about it as a way to communicate experience and talk in a larger sense about what it means to go through a treatment like this — [is] that it's not just the pictures ... It was important to me that the writing be part of the page. You have to actually sort of look at the letters and how they change.

On feeling separated from the "healthies" in the world

Part of the process of ... descending into the experience of being sort of deeply enmeshed in the treatment, is that ... I felt a sort of weird disconnect from the world in a way I didn't expect, in a way I wasn't particularly proud of. Things were happening, big things were happening around the world, and part of me just sort of almost reflexively thought, "Well, that's not my problem now." My problem is that I'm sick. ... Everybody else is wrecking the world, but I'm doing my job by just growing tumors and being treated for tumors. And that the "healthies" have just screwed everything up and I'm not responsible.

On his health today

I'm doing fine. I mean, as one of the first doctors said, this is a non-curative disease. So you want to treat it like a chronic disease as much as you can. The treatment for my head and neck were wonderfully effective; so far, nothing's come back. The tumors in my lungs didn't grow quite as slowly as we hoped. But, you know, they are indolent, even if they are relentless. ... The trick is to stay alive as long as possible and hope somebody invents something. So far, I'm doing my end of the bargain.

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath.

A few years ago, the cartoonist Matt Freedman started having nagging pain around his ear.

MATT FREEDMAN: I'd lived with ear pain in my left ear for years it seemed like. It would come and go and I would go to various doctors and be told it was ordinary pain. It got appreciably worse I think over the summer of 2012 to the point where half my head felt like it was on fire occasionally.

RATH: He tried mouth guards and pain killers. Nothing really worked.

FREEDMAN: And then a little bump popped up on my neck and I was so convinced that this was part of this sort of continuing earache that I just thought it was another manifestation of that.

RATH: Finally, Matt's family convinced him to see a doctor who told him it was not a benign earache. It was cancer. He had tumors in his neck and lungs. The cancer was slow-growing, but still life-threatening. The doctor described it with a phrase that resonated with Matt: relatively indolent but relentless. That became the title of his new book, a journal he kept over 60 days of cancer treatment.

FREEDMAN: I think a lot of people who have this particular kind of cancer, which is, as I say indolent and yet relentless, you know, live with it for a long time because it creeps up on them slowly like a slowly boiling frog. You don't jump out until it's a little too late.

RATH: In giving it the title of the journal, "Relatively Indolent But Relentless," it's an odd and ominous phrase.

FREEDMAN: Right. As soon as, you know, when I went in and saw that phrase, even with the qualifier, relatively, it was, like, oh, that's me. You know, it's not quite the extreme of anything, not quite as alert and aggressive as I should be, but, you know, get the job done slowly. And it turns out that that's going on at a cellular level as well, so, for better or worse.

RATH: So you're prescribed a treatment regimen of radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Where did the idea for writing this journal come from?

FREEDMAN: Well, I'm an artist and a writer, and I've used a kind of incremental writing process and drawing process over the years to sort of accumulate material that would be - and since too indolent to create in a spurt, I have to be relentless and produce them over time.

I didn't think of it as a book or a journal to share but simply, as a kind of experience, a sort of souvenir of some sort, I supposed.

RATH: And it looks to me what I imagine an artist's journal would look like. There are notes and some journaling and rough drawings along the side. Let's take a page from the journal to give our listeners a sense. Let's go to Day 10, October 23rd. Can you describe what you write and draw for our listeners?

FREEDMAN: OK. One of the things I was always worried about was that people, doctors, and, you know, everybody's trying to help me sort of deal with this sort of arc of treatment saying that, you know, it's going to get worse, so prepare yourself. And so, part of my mind was always wondering about that.

So this - the way this page is lined up, it's on, you know, on the left side, there's a cliff that reaches from the top of the page to the bottom. And there's a little figure who's clearly the author falling off the cliff. And then all the way down to the bottom are various images that were sort of characteristic of the problem I was having.

My tongue was beginning to really burn. I am getting a dry spot and sharp pains, so there's a kind of disembodied tongue about three-quarters of the way up with a nail in the tip. Then, below that, the food has become inedible. A banana taste like battery acid. So there's a peeled banana. Spaghetti tastes like a rake. The textures of things became quite difficult to deal with as much as the taste.

And then below that are sort of stormy waves. So I was sort of imaging that I had finally fallen off the cliff, but of course that was - I had a long way to go, and what I didn't realized is that I was sort of falling into a new kind of rhythm, a new temporary normal.

RATH: And over the course of this, as your state of mind changes, or even maybe your sense of self seems to change over the course of it, it's reflected in the drawings and even in your handwriting.

FREEDMAN: Yeah. That's very true. That's part of what I thought was important about the book once I started thinking about it as a way to communicate experience and talk in a larger sense about what it means to go through a treatment like this, that it's not just the pictures. But I'm glad that you see it that way, 'cause it was important to me that the writing be part of the page, that you have to actually sort of look at the letters and how they change.

RATH: And you get this sense as you get into it where you talk about this sense of separation between the people who are afflicted like you and the healthies. Can you explain that?

FREEDMAN: Yeah. I hope that wasn't a little too self-indulgent at the time. But I think part of the process of kind of withdrawal from the world or sort of descending into the experience of being sort of deeply enmeshed in the treatment is that you do - at least I felt a weird kind of disconnect from the world in a way I didn't expect and a way I wasn't particularly proud of.

But things were happening, big things were happening around the world, and part of me just sort of almost reflexively(ph) thought, well, that's not my problem now. My problem is that I'm sick. You know, and those people are - everybody else is wrecking the world, but I'm doing my job by just growing tumors and being treated for tumors. And that the healthies have screwed everything up and I'm not responsible.

RATH: Hum.

FREEDMAN: It's not - I don't know why that is. I supposed it was just a way of giving myself permission.

RATH: How is your health now? It's been close to a couple of years since that treatment. How are you doing?

FREEDMAN: I'm doing fine. I mean, as the - one of the first doctors said, this is a non-curative disease. So, you want to treat it like a chronic disease as much as you can. The treatment for my head and neck were wonderfully effective so far. Nothing's come back.

The tumors in my lungs didn't grow quite as slowly as we hoped, but you know, they are indolent, even if they are relentless. So the trick is to stay alive as long as possible and hope somebody invents something. But so far, we're - I'm doing my end of the bargain.

RATH: Well, wish you the best. Matt Freedman's book is called "Relatively Indolent But Relentless: A Cancer Treatment Journal." Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

FREEDMAN: Why thanks for, thanks for talking. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.